Preston Lee Keen

Interviewed by: Asher McGlothlin
Date of Interview: October 3, 2010
Interview Location: Mr. Keen’s home at Watkins Branch in Grundy, Virginia

Asher McGlothlin reports:

"Whenever I have looked for inspiration in my life, there has always been one man I have looked to, my grandfather. Granddaddy, the name by which my family refers to him, has spent a lot of time around me while I’ve grown up and has inspired me with his values of hard work, generosity, and honesty. It is, therefore, strange that I never really took the time to learn what made this man who is. Because of this interview, I have been given the opportunity to learn everything that made Granddaddy the man he is today. This interview took place in the dining room of his house. He has lived in the same house since birth. Before I can even begin to concern myself with where I am going in life, I must first learn where I am from. I have taken the first step to learn this by interviewing the man who has taught me more than any other."

Question: Where and in what year were you born?

Keen: August of 31. August 2 of 1931 in Devon, West Virginia.

Question: What is your earliest childhood memory?

Keen: When I first started school, I was taking a bottle. I had to have a bottle to take with me to school. I kept it down in my overalls and when I got thirsty I’d just take me a drink of it. My mom died when I was young so my dad never took my bottle away from me.

Question: Do you remember when you finally stopped taking the bottle with you?

Keen: I guess after everybody started teasin’ me.

Question: What was your favorite thing to do for fun as a child?

Keen: Well, I guess one of my memories was of me and Frank McClanahan, he was a boy that used to live across from me, me and him used to come out behind your guest house [Interviewer: a house which is currently located across the road from where I live at on Watkins Branch] and dig in that hillside and make us tunnels and make us roads for our little cars back there. We used to have us a neighborhood gang, too. In fact, all of the streets had ‘em a little gang. We used to get together and have rubber band fights. We’d go down to Poetown and try to shoot ‘em up but they had a little barn that they’d hide in and they’d shoot your ass off. We used to have an old bus that we would get in and hide in when they’d come down here and we’d get ‘em from in there. And another thing was when I first started school there wasn’t nothing down through here but a walk path. There wasn’t no roads or nothing. I used to walk to the mouth of the holler and catch the bus down there at Ratliff’s Farm and Supplies. At that time they had a grocery store down in there, too. This Ratliff girl that used to run with one of my sisters, she always liked me, and when I’d catch the bus she’d gimme a piece of candy. She used to hug on me, too. I liked that, you know. She always liked me.

Question: So Ratliff’s Farm and Supplies has been there for a while?

Keen: Yeah, it’s been there since before Auburn. (Auburn Ratliff is the current owner of Ratliff’s Farm and Supplies.) It used to be run by Auburn’s daddy.

Question: So Ratliff’s has been there for a while, hasn’t it?

Keen: Oh God yeah. It’s been there for at least sixty or seventy years. And I’ll tell you something else we used to do, too. We used to play in these mountains. We go hike all around in ‘em. In fact, one time Roger Powers and Frank McClanahan got lost up in the mountains. All of us boys went out and hunted them. We found them and we came out up there at the old Dismal Country Club. In fact, Roger’s daddy treated all us boys to a steak dinner for finding them. Another thing we sued to do was we made cardboard houses. We take these big ol’ boxes from like a refrigerator or water heater and stuff like that. We’d just carve us out a little windows and this and that and the other. We’d put a bunch of ‘em together and we’d have rooms we could go to. We had us a little fireplace, too. We’d take a bunch of cans and cut the ends out of them and put ‘em together and have a little fire going inside of our houses.

Question: Were they large enough on the inside for you to stand up?

Keen: We’d have to crawl around. Janet Woods (now Janet Leemaster) down here, she was the only girl on the street. She’d wanna play with us all the time. If we didn’t want her to play with us, we’d just tie her up to a tree somewhere.

Question: How’d she end up getting loose when you tied her up?

Keen: When we got done playing we’d let her loose. In fact, when we was gone one day, Janet snuck into our cardboard house. We caught her and we liked to kill her we was so mad.

Question: Did you have a childhood hero? If so, who was it and why?

Keen: [silence]

Question: Were you all into cowboys?

Keen: Yeah, we liked some of them. Some of them like Gene Autry and Gabby Hayes. I’d say I had several heroes. I remember, too, that I looked up to Smiley Ratliff that played football. He was a good football player. And Blacky Stewart, too. He was a good football player. If you ever get a chance to eat at that Rusty Fork place over there in Ervinton, there’s a picture of him on the wall. It’s a picture of him with his dog. It’s a shame what happened to that boy. He used to ride his motorcycle and one night some boys ran him off the road and killed him. It about killed his daddy. Blacky meant the world to his daddy.

Question: Where did you attend school?

Keen: I went to Grundy School to start off with.

Question: Where was it located at?

Keen: It was down there where the law school library is now.

Question: Can you remember what grades you completed while you were there?

Keen: All I remember is that it burnt down. It was just made out of old card papers. I went to the junior high they built that was next door to it. That’s where I first met you grandmother at. And I graduated from there.

Question: What is your fondest memory from your school years?

Keen: The first time I met your grandmother. She came up to the high school for eighth grade. I’m a couple of years older than she is so that would’ve put me in the tenth grade when I met her.

Question: Who were some of your best friends when you were in school?

Keen: I’d say Sonny Raines, James Arrington, Bob Muncy, and some of them other boys that I grew up with.

Question: What can you tell me about your father?

Keen: He was a great man. He was a hard working man. He worked logging. He worked on the railroad. When his railroad company got bought out he worked individually as a painter. He done that for the rest of his life. Whatever he told you, he’d tell you one time. He wouldn’t tell you a second time. If you didn’t listen he’d just jerk you up and bust your tale. See that light switch there (points to a light switch in the corner of the room), when we first got the lights in here he showed me how to use the light switch. You turn it on when you walk into the room and turn it off when you leave. Of course I was just an ol’ boy, I didn’t pay no attention. I was just like you [laughs]. I forgot one day and didn’t turn the light off. He come and got me and took me in the room and asked me if I left the light on. I said yeah and he bent me over and paddled me a good one. I was really proud of my daddy, Asher. He wasn’t rich with money, but he was rich with everything else.

Question: Do you think you applied some of his values when you got a job?

Keen: I do. He always told me to be honest and fair. And don’t tell a lie, because a lie just creates two. You see, my daddy raised us. My sister helped a lot, too. She didn’t go to school any more after my mother died because she stayed home to take care of us. Here, in this house, she used to carry me around on her hip and do work. When we lived down there at Hoot Owl in this house, they moved it here because its just one of them old box houses that they’d bring in on the railroad, I got out playing one day with some other boys and got boogers or I guess they call ‘em lice on my head. My sister got scared that my daddy would whoop her for letting me get lice, so she shaved my head. Before then I had really long hair. You couldn’t tell the front end from the back.

Question: How many brothers and sister did you have?

Keen: Well I had once sister named Nancy. She died young from cancer before they really knew what cancer was. They tried to use some of that experimental stuff on her but it didn’t work. And I got a couple of brothers and sisters buried over there above the railroad at Elong. They died during birth so they don’t have names. Dolly was my sister that took care of me when I was younger. And then there’s Bill Junior, too. He’s the one that moved down to Florida. We lived here and he lived down at Hoot Owl with his wife and children and they’d come down here on Sundays. My brother was in the service in the Navy. We’d play out here in the yard and his son, Roger, would just aggravate the fire out of me. I remember one time I was whirling Roger around in the front yard and accidentally broke his arm [laughs].

Question: I think I remember you telling me about that. Alex (interviewer's older brother) used to whirl me around like that when I was younger and you used to yell at him to stop. Do you remember that?

Keen: Yeah, I remember that. That used to scare the hell out of me.

Question: What can you tell me about your mother?

Keen: Not much. She died when I was only about eighteen months old. I had a picture of her somewhere. This woman that used to baby sit for me would remind you of Della. You remember, that big woman that worked for your grandmother. You remember the big fat one. [Interviewer: Yeah, I remember her.] Well, she used to sit in this old rocking chair here on the front porch and rock me when I was a baby.

Question: What was your mother’s name?

Keen: Mary Elizabeth Matney

Question: Did you ever know any of your grandparents?

Keen: No.

Question: What is your favorite memory with your father?

Keen: I guess when I’d be working with him; we’d take out our dinner buckets when we were taking a break to eat. He’d take his teeth out; he had false teeth he had to take out. I used to laugh at him because he would have to take his knife and scrape the back of his false teeth with it because it would bother him to put them back in after he ate.

Question: Would he scrape them to get the food off of them?

Keen: No, where they’d be right on his gums he’d scrape them to keep them from rubbing his gums too raw. Daddy never really got to play too much with me, he didn’t have time to.

Question: What did you do after high school?

Keen: After high school, I bought my brother’s interest in Grundy Wall Paper. It was down there where you cross the old depot bridge. I no longer than got started with business there than I had to go into the armed services. I was in the Marine Corp. When I come back out I went into business with a store down at Lee Town Curve. That building has fallen in now, though. I can still remember when your mommy was a baby and your grandmother would bring her up to the store. The ol’ salesmen would come in there all the time with their suitcases full of what they were trying to sell. One time I was talking to a salesman and we thought we’d pull a prank on your grandmother. He put your mommy down in his suitcase and your grandmother about lost it when she couldn’t find her.

Question: What was your first occupation?

Keen: I was a painter

Question: Who taught you how to paint?

Keen: My dad

Question: Would he take you with him when he would paint?

Keen: Yep, that’s how I learned.

Question: What occupations have you had since then?

Keen: Retail sales, rental business and I was in the coal mining business for a while, too. I used to own a carpet store a little down the road from here too.

Question: Do you have any memories from the carpet store?

Keen: Nothing really. I was a retail salesman and I would install carpet if people wanted me to.

Question: What was your favorite occupation?

Keen: Well, I enjoyed installing carpet and painting. That’s about the only thing I knew.

Question: What do you remember from your experiences in the Marines?

Keen: It was two years taken out of my life, but I learned a lot in the Marines. I really grew up while I was in the Marines. I think that every young man should have to go through the boot camp. It teaches you everything that you need to know in life. They teach you to respect your fellow man. I just hated that I was gone for two years. I was drafted and I couldn’t buy my way out of it like some of them boys could. Some of the ones with a lot of money could pay and not have to fight. But I really think that everybody should learn the values that the armed services can teach you.

Question: Were you drafted into the Marine Corps, or did you pick to go into it?

Keen: I was just drafted for two years in the service. I volunteered to go into the Marine Corps. After we took our exams that they gave us after we got drafted, they gave us four choices. They asked us if we wanted to be in the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, or if we just didn’t give a damn. Two or three of us ol’ boys just told ‘em we didn’t give a damn. So I got picked for the Marine Corps.

Question: Were you ever in active combat while you were in the Marines?

Keen: No, I never got into an actual battle. They took us down to the Philippines and we would run live maneuvers down there. I was in the Marines during the Korean Conflict. My battalion was called up at one point, but we never saw any action. I actually got appendicitis while I was on a boat. We were on a small boat and the water was pretty rough. They had to turn the boat sideways so that they could operate on me because the water was so rough. Being in the Marines was a good experience, but I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t drafted.

Question: Who were some of your best friends in your adulthood?

Keen: I guess Sonny Raines, Nick Street, and James Arrington.

Question: Do you remember what happened when you met my grandmother?

Keen: I told you I met her at the junior high, but I was wrong. Don’t tell her I told you wrong or she’ll get me. I met her down at the Lynwood Theatre. Me and my buddies used to always sit in the corner of the theatre, up near the projection booth. I saw her walking up one of the aisles and I told my buddies that I was gonna get me a date with that girl. I remember that she was wearing a skirt all the way down to her ankles, and she looked so beautiful in it.

Question: What’d you say to her?

Keen: Lord, I don’t even remember now, Asher.

Question: Yeah, I bet you don’t [laughs]. How long did you date my grandmother before you proposed to her?

Keen: We dated; I guess it must’ve been about 7 or 8 years.

Question: Do you remember how you proposed to her?

Keen: No, not really.

Question: Do you remember what your wedding was like?

Keen: It was down at Harman Baptist Church. It was in that stone part of the church. We didn’t have a lot of people there and we only paid the preacher twenty dollars. It wasn’t one of these fancy weddings with a lot of people. We got married on December 17. I had come in from the service on Christmas leave.

Question: What year did you get married?

Keen: Lord, there’s so many of them that it’s hard to tell ‘em. They used to fight around just like you boys. They both turned out to be homecoming queens. We used to have a little yellow motorcycle and me and Sarah (aunt of interviewer, whose full name is Sarah Matney) were riding around on it one day. I was letting her drive and we hit something and wrecked and I landed on top of her. I was scared that I had hurt her really bad, but she was alright.

Question: ’51.?

Keen: What’re some of your fondest memories of my mother and aunt growing up?

Question: What do you remember of when my brothers, my cousin, and I were growing up. ?

Keen: Gosh, I gotta lot of them, too. Alex [my brother, Alex McGlothlin] spent the night with me and your grandmother one night and slept in the bed with me. I got up the next morning and my back was wet. At first I thought I had sweat really bad in my sleep but I come to find out that your brother had peed the bed and peed all over my back. He cuddled up to me sometime during the night and let me have it.

Question: What do you remember of your legendary trips to Cincinnati?

Keen: I can still remember all of the times we’ve gone together. The first few times we went you would get out your little map and give me directions the whole way there. We used to make bets on how many miles we’d have to drive to get to Cincinnati. Speaking of which, how many miles is it to Cincinnati?

Question: I think it is about 270, isn’t it?

Keen: 253.

Question: What can you tell me of the trips you used to take up there with Sonny Raines?

Keen: I can’t tell you about those. They’re off limits.

Question: Looking back on your life and all of your experiences, if you could do anything differently, would you?

Keen: Eh, maybe one or two things, but nothing I wanna talk about.