I am sure most people when thinking of what would be their most memorable would say the day they were married, or the day their kids were born. Well as far as the day I got married to She Who Must Be Obeyed, I remember everything up till the reception, and then it gets a little fuzzy. As for the day Dagny was born, I will never forget the first moment I saw her, the tears in my eyes, and holding her in my arms for the first time. For sure that was a day and a moment that I will never forget. I will write more about that day at another time, as that is a very happy memory, but unfortunately our brains do not work that way. No our brains always brand into our psyche the bad things. Getting fired, getting divorced, losing a loved one, or having violence done upon you all can leave their permanent scars. These are the things that stick with you the longest. Having told very few people about this event, it seems strange that I take to writing about it now, but it is an important part of my life, and I would like to get it out so that I might move on to more positive things. So without further ado, the story of Denley Casto:
West Virginia is a beautiful place. It's a natural wonder that despite what some would tell you regarding the harshness of mining is still full of pristine areas that east of the Mississippi, is hard to find. I grew up in a small town surrounded a small college, although in truth, we lived so far out of town it's hard to equate that we lived "in" the town. Nope. Not my family. Our trailer (yep, that would be "mobile home" to a lot of you), sat out in the country on about 5 acres of cleared land surrounded on 2 sides with huge forests, and the other two sides with hayfields, which make great makeshift golf holes, using the 12 inch PVS pipes with a lunch bucket on their tops, that were the covers for wells that had been drilled as holes and pins. Our "backyard" was about an acre and a half of garden that we planted each spring and about another acre that we had to mow, at first with a push mower, then later with a Ford riding mower. Suddenly a horrible chore became something to fight over with my brothers to see who was going to do it doing because a riding lawnmower was like DRIVING!!! We were remote, in the country, in the boondocks, however one likes to put it, but we did have neighbors. The best neighbors you could possibly imagine. The most friendly, outgoing, helpful folks that you have ever met, and I tell you that I was "raised" by all of them. Most of the folks around were older people, either retired, or as close as people got to retired back then and there, which meant that they only raised 3 or 4 hogs a year, 1-2 acres of fruits and vegetables, a few dozen chickens, a couple heads of cattle, and a horse or pony. Retired to them, meant they didn't go to the mines everyday to a "real job". All of these folks had grandchildren that would visit now and then, and of course I would go and play whenever that happened, but even in between visits, I would go to their houses, walk right in (didn't everyone do that where you are from?), and go hang out with the old folks, help them with whatever they were doing, eat supper with them, then head home about dark. Some hired me to do things around their farms. I've done just about everything you can think of when you think of farms. I've weeded gardens, painted countless fences, cleared ponds of cattails, gathered eggs, cleaned chicken coops, tarred roofs, bailed hay (even better once I was big enough to drive the truck, since that made driving the lawnmower trivial by comparison) and fed slop to pigs and feed and corn to chickens and cows. I never had an "hourly wage" per se but I usually got about 10 bucks for a full day of work on the weekends. Trust me when I say that I was the "richest" kid in my family, though my brothers were 6 and 7 years older than me, and probably the "richest" kid in Upshur County, at least as far as I knew. I once made 50 bucks to dig a trench 18 inches deep, 12 inches wide and 120 feet long. I tell you I was friggin RICH!!! 50 buckaroos for just 1 week and a half of work? How could I have been so lucky? I bought Pitfall for the Atari with that, and no matter what you say, that was the best game of all time.
So my neighbors, and I call them neighbors though they were all a good 5 minute Huffy ride from us, were all what people back then and perhaps still do call, "Salt of the Earth" folks. I will assume that is some sort of Biblical reference, but to me it just means folks that you can count on, that you can trust, and that would literally do whatever they could to help you. I did have 2 friends my age though in the "neighborhood". Mitch Tenney and Denley Casto although Denley was 1 year older than us and at 6 and 7 years old that year means a great deal in terms of physical being. Denley's dad was Buck, and Buck plowed our garden each year, so that is how I met Denley. I would ride my Huffy to Denley's house and we would play board games, make elaborate trails and cities for our Hot wheels cars, cowboy and Indians, or war out on their land. They had a barn which was weather-beaten, full of hay dust all the time, and filled with hay bales that we would arrange into forts, bunkers, stunt hills, you name, and we built it out of hay bales. They had a corn bin too! For you city folks, a corn bin is the country version of a ball pit. You could get in and jump around, bury yourself and have fun. I spent probably 3 days out of the week at Denley's house and barn, until dark thirty or so, and then rode my Huffy back the dirt road the couple miles back to our house, usually in complete darkness. Side note- If you've never done so, go drive the routes you rode on bikes as a kid. Some will surprise you at the "car brevity" and some will impress you with how far you really did go. I'll save the story of Mitch for another day, but there are stories there as well. Let's just say that when I was a kid, my best friend pretended to be a black dude, 90% of the time. So...
In the fall of 1979, at the age of 6 exciting news came to our little part of the country. I boxing club was started up, and we met a couple times a week at Buck Casto's barn, where they had a heavy bag, speed bag, and even a ring with ropes and everything set up. Denley and I were sparring partners of course, as all the other "boxers" were my brother's age and well that wouldn't be much fun at all, although that did not stop my brothers from using me as a punching bag for the next 6 years or so, but that too is a story for another day. Each practice or workout, or whatever you call it when a bunch of kids get together and punch things and get tired to the absolute delight of their parents, my brothers and I would run to the Casto Barn, or FIGHT CLUB! As I romanticize it now, and walk home. So we practiced, all through the fall and into the winter, until finally we were all going to go fight in a real life boxing match on January 19th, 1980, which was the day before Ronald Reagan was sworn in, to put a relative time frame in mind. We practiced hard, two and 3 times a week, which although there was an adult "coach", for us younger kids meant we punched, jumped rope, until we could barely walk, which if you've ever had a 6 year old is a lot of punching and jumping rope. Winter comes early in our part of West Virginia, meaning that by November it is fairly cold, and by December it's really cold, and snow is possible if not probably a few times a month. But we still ran to practice and walked home in the snow. We never really thought much about it. About 2 weeks before the big boxing match, we were mostly sparring, which in 6 and 7 year old parlance means that we stood in the ring and threw haymakers until one of us got knocked down, or we couldn't throw any more punches being too tired. out. But we were focused, and we just knew we were all going to beat these other boys from wherever they may come from, and no matter what training or experience they may have. We had a calendar set up on the barn wall, which just had the number till the big match, and every day or that last week, we would gather round it and pull off another page, until finally the number was 1. One day until the big boxing match that was going to bring all of us to the big leagues of Sugar ray Leonard, and Muhammad Ali. So my brothers and I went home, this time driven by our Dad, you know; to preserve our strength for the big fight tomorrow.
January 19, 1980 had finally come, and I was excited as I could possibly be. Not only was I going to go box my first match and probably knock some kid out in the first round in about 6 seconds, but a special guest was going to be there. Now you have probably never heard of Tommy Franco Thomas, but in West Virginia he was as big as Ali and Sugar ray put together so this was a big deal. Side note- Tommy Franco Thomas got a title shot in about 1982 against Michael Dokes, and unfortunately was knocked out in about 5 rounds. I cried. That's all I have to say about that. So it's Saturday in West Virginia, and the big boxing match is to start about 4:00PM. They had my "bout" scheduled shortly after that, as they went from youngest to oldest, and then finally to the Golden Gloves official matches. I was psyched, my Dad was psyched, and finally we were in the gym of Buckhannon Middle School, and I had my hands taped up, my gloves were on, and I was ready to go make mincemeat of this chump kid who dared to come face me on my own turf. I am a little lion cub; hear me roar! So our little bout was scheduled for 3 2 minute rounds, and even back then I guess the safety officials or probably more likely our Moms decided it was a good idea for us to wear headgear. So there I go into the ring. I'm bouncing up and down, floating like a bee, looking every bit the Rocky Balboa that I was and then some, then the other kid came in. Now I'm not saying that this kid was not 6 years old. Maybe he was kin to Andre the Giant or something, but he was at least a head taller than me, and probably had me by 30 pounds. Then again, I was sort of a scrawny kid, and maybe I was on the short side as well. Well no matter. I was going to decimate this Giant once and for all for the pride of Sago!
Ding! Ding! The bell rings, and this kid is on me like an animal. He is "boxing", which to me meant that he actually punched straight out in front of him. I was getting pummeled pretty badly and my head was all goo-goo quickly. Luckily the side training of my brothers kicking the shit out of me regularly must have toughened me up at least a little, because this was getting ugly quickly. DING! DING! The round is over. What a sweet sweet sound that bell was. Even to this day I remember this event whenever I hear a bell like that. So I am in my corner, all whooped and tired. If I did any punching that first round, I can’t recall any of them. It was mostly protecting my face from getting pulverized. My Dad was in my corner, and I will quote him, as it is as fresh these 33 years later as it was then. Side note- My Dad did some weird things for the navy back in the day. I'm not really sure what, but it wasn't peeling potatoes. Anyway.... My Dad says, 'well goddammit (probably my Dad's favorite word after 'the") are you going to fight or are you going to just get your ass whooped?" Me: He’s bigger than me. Dad: "You get your ass out there and you swing until you can’t swing anymore and you knock him down, because I think he wants to kill you. Screw that boxing shit and go out there and fight and kick his ass." Me: Okay.
DING! DING! Round two commenced. "Hulk" came out with his proper boxing stance and was moving in to finish me off, and I just went apeshit on him. I threw haymaker after haymaker until finally I caught him square and poof, down he went. He got back up, and again I started wailing like a little Tasmanian Devil, until finally I knocked him down and he didn't get back up. Now mind you I did NOT knock him out. I think I scared him so much he just decided to stay down there until the 10 count, rather than have to come back at this little maniac. DING DING DING! Match over, and I go to the middle and have my hand raised as the vicious little rascal that I was. I got a trophy that I still have to this day. It's about 6 inches tall, but it was at least 2 feet tall when I got it. It must be a magically shrinking thing or something.
So I watch the next bout which was Denley and another giant from Webster Springs. Must be something in the water down there or something! So Denley and this other kid fight all 3 rounds, and apparently at this age level, if there is no knockdown or obvious winner it is called a draw and they both get trophies. So Denley and I were done with the fighting part of the fight and were walking on air as we walked around the gym, and found a place to sit. We watched our brothers fight, and they all did pretty well as I recall, with nobody getting their asses kicked or anything. A little more actual boxing was going on here, so that was interesting to both of us "swingers". About 7 o'clock we decided we had watched enough boxing and decided we would go across the street to Spudnuts. For those of you that do not know what a Spudnut is; it is a doughnut that is made with potato dough instead of wheat dough. Pretty damned tasty if I recall correctly. In actuality, Spudnuts was a small diner that had a couple pool tables, about 4 video games, and probably sat 15-20 people at a low counter with small, red sparkly cushioned stools that swiveled around, at least until the owner made us "stop our damned spinning". So Denley and I were excited, and we had a couple dollars that I brought just for this occasion and we started running down the parking lot and across the street to Spudnuts. I remember us racing towards the bright lights of the building which was about 200 yards from the gym doors, and across the 2 lane road. It was already dark in the cold winter night, but we were all jacked up on victory and being 7, well at least almost 7. We were racing at full speed and being a year younger, and that year meaning a lot in a boy's speed, and me being slow even as a skinny little guy, Denley had about a 5 yard lead on me in no time. I was trying with all my might to catch up as I looked to the left and saw the cars big headlights bathe Denley with what seems still to this day a spotlight. Denley was hit and knocked almost 100 yards down Route 33 in Buckhannon, West Virginia. Though the lady driving the car hit the brakes immediately, it was not quick enough to stop a car from hitting a running boy of 7 years old. I stood there and watched, as my best buddy and friend laid on the blacktop of that road. I ran up to him, and he was already gone. People came around, and were looking and trying to help him. Police came from inside the gym, and were there within a minute. I remember the lady driving the car screaming like a crazy person, and falling to the ground, sobbing. I didn't cry. I knew he was gone, but I also knew that I only was alive because I couldn't keep up with him. My Dad came out and picked me up off the ground. I can’t remember him ever doing that before or since. AN Ambulance was there in a quick minute or two, and they loaded Denley on the stretcher and had him inside the ambulance and gone in minutes. Apparently Denley was not dead, or at least not officially dead right then. My Dad went and put me in the truck, and drove us all home. I went straight to my bedroom that I shared with my brother, and climbed up into the top bunk. The quilt that I had was homemade by one of my surrogate Grandmother neighbors, and was brown squares on a white background with little knots of red yarn in the middle of each square. About 10:30 or so, and I am just guessing on that time, but it sounds about right, I heard the phone ring at the house. My dad came in and told me that Denley had died. He said, "I'm really sorry buddy", which in my Dad's parlance meant a lot. He left me alone, and I cried for my best friend.
A few days later I went to the funeral for Denley Casto. I was afraid to go, because I was scared that Denley's Mom and Dad would not like me anymore, or blame me since I was with him. But that fear was misplaced, as they both got down on their knees and hugged me at kid level. They said that they were so glad that I didn't get hurt with him, and that he had loved me, and that I was always welcome at their house. I cried a lot that day. There are many feelings in the heart of a 6 year old that are exaggerated, but I can honestly say that pain was real, and deep. I feel it to this day, and am thankful for the life that I have. Sometimes not winning the race can save your life.