|My name is Richard Neal. I was born on February 17th, 1931, in Rocky Gap, Virginia. My mother was Annie French. My father was Sam James Neal. My father was born and raised in Tazwell County and my mother in Bland County. My dad was in business for himself. In fact, he had the first trucks that were in Bland County. He was a logger. A timber man. I might say that he was one of the best mechanics that I believe I have ever seen. He specialized in heavy equipment.
I was an only child, so, my mom played games with me. My dad, he’d take me on when he’d be hauling some logs, and if it was safe, I went with him. My grandparents were Bill O. French and Luna Bird French. They were both born and raised in Bland County. They were both farmers too. Memories of my grandmother, well, she lived with us until I went into the service, probably about fifteen years.
We’d ride stick horses . Have you ever seen a stick horse? We’d play that. Of course, there was a gym at Rocky Gap in those days. It was outside, and we’d play pick-up basketball games. Then, in the evenings, the guys, since there wasn’t any cars, everybody would gather like at Carroll’s. Then, we’d run out to North Gap. Some of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen in my life was Richard Wiley. I’ve never seen a man before or since with the speed of him. Nobody.
I really didn’t have a favorite game that’d I’d play. I would participate in anything that people would let me play.
I would gather in some firewood. At one time, my Grandmother had a few chickens. I counted that as a blessing to get to go gather the eggs. Then, I would get to go to a mill. There was a grist corn mill just across from the one at Rocky Gap. It was run by Tolberts in those days. I couldn’t carry but a peck of corn, but I’d take that and have it ground. I thought that was great. There was a track that ran up through. They would haul logs down today where the Carroll building is today. It was a big mill.
I could say that I didn’t despise any chores. I really enjoyed doing those kinds of things.
My house was the house that is straight across from the school now. I think it was a seven-room house at the time. It had running water in it. Of course, they had the spring house. That was about it. It was heated by wood burning or coal burning stoves.
We cooked our food on a wood stove, then later on, electric. At first we washed our clothes by hand then by a washing machine. A wringer type. I tried to stay away from the outhouse on cold mornings.
I started school in a primer. When I started to school there was no kindergarten and you only had eleven years. You had primer, 1st through 7th grades, and then, four years of high school. I went to Tazewell for a couple of years and then Ramsey in Bluefield for about a year and then went out to East End in Bluefield for about a year. I rode a bus to school when I was in Tazewell County. Of course I commuted, I just walked when I was at Rocky Gap and then one year I went back to Ramsey, I rode with my uncle who was a mechanic at the power company.
In high school, I just took general subjects - English, Sociology, Geography, History, and Math.
We didn’t have a Halloween carnival or anything like that at school. On holidays, you just took them and stayed home. There was no fanfare in those days.
My first cousin who lives down in Alabama put cows in the upper building one Halloween night. About three of them I think that they were put up those steps. They shouldn’t have done it but it was rather funny at the time.
Teenagers courted mostly in daytime at school because we didn’t have cars like you guys have today. Kids in those days were in better condition because they walked more. That’s the way they got there.
I went on dates, but we double-dated. When Lois and I were going, I would hire someone to bring me up here and then I would walk back at night, which is about 3 miles, which is no walk at all, really.
They showed movies at the school, usually on a Friday after the lunch period. There was no cafeteria when I went.
Me and my wife were childhood sweethearts. We went to school together and graduated together. We were married at her home which is now torn down. It was an old farmhouse. We were married on May 29, 1953.
The ceremony was private. Naturally, there was a pastor , her mom and dad, my mom, and Jimmy Pemberton. He was my best man. I don’t know if you all knew Jimmy or not.
We went down through The Smokies and back for our honeymoon. My wife’s name is Lois Davis Neal. We have three children. Jamie Lynn is the oldest and she was born in Bluefield and she lives next door now. Danny Alan is the son. He is a doctor and lives in Harrisonburg, VA. Alice Marie, the youngest, she’s a nurse and lives in Berwick, Pennsylvania.
I can’t say that its any different, raising children back then and today. Probably a little bit more expense now because times have changed and you try to give kids a little better than we had. But I enjoyed what I had and made the most of it.
Population wise, Rocky Gap probably had three or four times as many people in it as today. When I was growing up, there were five service stations. There was a big planing mill which was located across from the United Methodist church. There was the sawmill. Scott Hutchinson had a neon light store. The railroad came in and loaded iron ore and transported it and loaded timber and the merchants received car loads of feed for farms, salt, flour, and that nature. The old Conley store building housed a bank, the post office, a store and a train station. You could buy a ticket there and go to Bastian or Narrows by way of train. It ran three days a week. That’s about it.
The railroad brought in some work. It transported and hauled out a lot of raw materials such as iron ore and logs and different things like that. Its closing affected Rocky Gap physically the most. It had the “Y” big enough to turn the train. It came up in front of the United Methodist church and back down by the Honaker place. That’s the white house that’s the behind the BP. Anyway, it made a “Y”. That’s how they turned the engines. It would pull up like it was going to Bastian and back up in the “Y” and then go back down the other side of the “Y” to take them back to Narrows. Then the main road, of course, was built about the time I was born, in 1931. Then the main road, of course, was built about the time I was born in 1931. That’s the highway it is today. I use to come around by the school like it does today.
The bank there - I can remember when they took the vault out of it. It was one of the largest vault doors in the state and they moved it to Appomattox, VA.
I rode the train to Bastian several times. I was trying to remember what it cost to ride - it wasn’t much - maybe a quarter to Bastian. Virginia Hardwoods was in Bastian at that time, which was a big outfit. They later moved them out to Oregon - moved those twin banmills. Sawed both sides - two carriages.
Since then, the road has changed like day and night - the tunnel going across East River Mountain. It’s unbelievable at the tires - when I first started working, you had to get your car lined up at least once a year. And a set of tires lasted no longer than that. If you had a good set, you got 20,000. Today, you can get 40 to 50,000 on a set.
I don’t recall the Raleigh-Grayson Turnpike. I’ve heard of it, but that’s it.
In Rocky Gap, you’ve had the United Methodist Church, the Church of God, the Holiness Church, up where the school acquired, in that you had a Union Church. Presbyterian met there one Sunday a month, the Baptist on Sunday a month, the Methodist one Sunday and there was one other one, but I can’t remember the name. I could probably look back and find it, but I can’t remember what it was.
The Great Depression
I was in on the tale-end of the Depression. I was born about the second year in the Depression and all I can go by is what people said. The logging industry kept right on. It didn’t affect it like it did other things. Exactly how it affected Rocky Gap as a whole, I couldn’t say.
World War II
I can remember when people registered and when people went to World War II. My dad registered in 1937. I was six years old, but I can remember it. They registered in the center part of the elementary school - where the old auditorium used to be. They were several kids in high school that got drafted right out of school. I had several cousins and people like that in the war, but not in my immediate family. During the war, things back home were rationed. Sugar was rationed. Gasoline was rationed. Shoes were rationed. Toothpaste was rationed. (Believe it or not) There were several items rationed - tobacco of all kinds. That’s some of the things I can remember that were rationed.
I just remember the bank robbery that happened here about five or six years ago.
Johnny Bogle Honaker was an interesting town character. He was, (not making fun of him), but you could mention it was going to rain and he’d give you a lecture and verbs you wouldn’t want to put on that recorder. Then Dink Rooker - story goes, Dink helped put a man in the electric chair in Richmond and it sort of drove him off the deep end. He was a rather unique person - a funny character.
When I was in high school, we had a snow, (right across the elementary school today fences the Stowers’ property), the snow was level with the fence posts and it hadn’t drifted either. It was really deep. I think the reason is the trees in the forests weren’t cut down, held more water, the wind was kept off it - things of that nature.
I remember Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president that made the banks stable and Social Security was brought on line under his administration. I know he died in Augusta, Georgia, I believe it was 1944. I think for his time, he was a great president. Back then, when he died, people took things pretty serious - it wasn’t a joke. Even with me as a teenager, it bothered me.
I liked President Truman. I thought he was a great president because he told it like it was. I think President Eisenhower was a super leader. He was a man who led by example. I don’t think he put himself above any man. Although you don’t ever put your leaders on the front line, I think he would have gone easy, if he had to. I think he was a great man - not only as president and a general, but I think he was a great man period.
I remember exactly where I was when President Kennedy had been shot. I was coming right down this hill here - I had been deer hunting (and I didn’t see any deer that day either). I felt terrible about it. Anytime you lose a leader - I’ll say this, you can put them in a bag and shake them out and whoever falls out first, call him a Democrat or Republican. I thought he did a good job for the time he was in there. Some things I didn’t agree with, but for the most part, I thought he did good.
President Nixon and Watergate. Nixon at first didn’t know it, and then he was made aware of it, and he covered up something. What could they have gained if they had stolen the whole thing? He fell to political pressure and lied and shouldn’t have done it.
When I grew up, we had a radio, so I really can’t say when we got our first one. It was battery and then, of course, the AC power didn’t come in to Rocky Gap until 1937 (the same year they registered for the draft).
I installed our first telephone. I believe it was in 1957. I installed all the telephones in the Rocky Gap District for GTE. First one that was installed was in Rocky Gap High School. That was usually the way they did it when they went into the community. When we started out, we had 100 applications in the Ruritan Club which Jeff’s grandfather was a great member. He and I traveled a lot with the Ruritan Club and the PTA. We had to have one hundred people to sign up for GTE to get it. I started out with 100 orders and finished up installing 179 numbers. That means they could have had more extensions, but 179 terminals, which means a telephone number. We got our first television in 1953 or 1954.
I was ten years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. I was in Carroll’s store and I heard the older people talking about it. I was smart enough to know what happened from being a hunter. Mr. Cecil had gotten run over by a car just two or three weeks before that so I know what death was and I knew what bombing would do - destruction. When the bomb was dropped and the Japanese surrendered, I hate to see the loss of lives, but the bomb saved more than it killed.
For the most part, I think people supported the Korean war. I was in the second draft they made. The Chinese came across the Yellow River in November 1950. I was drafted February 8, 1950. It was the second largest draft they ever made in the United States military service. They drafted 80,000 that month. I was on border in Europe when they drew out the names and I was on the Rhine River and up in Austria and on the Swiss border, the East Berlin sector.
In the 1950’s, I would say the times in Bland County were about average. Not bad, but not good either - down the middle. You can find good or bad anywhere. (I was looking in the paper today - they can’t even find people to work on the oil rigs out in Oklahoma for example). There’s work about anywhere you go if you want to work. So it was about normal.
In all my travels through the United States to California, from VA Beach all the way to California, from the Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast, I’ve been to Canada, I’ve been down to Florida, I’ve found no place I wold trade it for. I like it - we may not make the most money around here, but when you go away and come back, you’ll appreciate this place, believe me, you will. You’ll find that out one day.
The Country Today
I think we are in good shape today. Unemployment - you get a lot of people with part-time jobs. They count them when they get them off of unemployment as working. Overall, I think we are in good shape. I think things are for the better. Only thing’s that worse, the people may be worse, but as far as the overall picture, we’re in much better shape. Everybody’s got a car, everybody’s got a house to live in. Everybody’s got a job that wants to work.
When I got out of the service, January 22, 1953, I got to Bluefield by train. There was no one at home, so I said I’ll just find me a job. So, I put my duffle bag in a locker down at the train station. I went down to the far end of Bluefield Avenue and started at the freight station. At that time, they employed over 100 down there unloading where tractor trailers haul that type of freight today. They didn’t have any openings. I came up to National Coil - nothing. Betsy Ross Bakery - nothing. I came on up to WV Armature - nothing. I went to the power company and they didn’t have anything.
I said I believe I’ll stop here at the telephone company. I stopped and went in and the plant manager, (he was a military man), asked when I got out of service. I said I just got off the train a while ago. He said if I hired you, when could you got to work. This was on a Thursday. I said I can go to work tomorrow. He said, “That soon?” And I said, “Yes, Sir.” He said go down to Dr. King, (whose office was down at the old bus terminal), who had just gotten out of the army a couple of weeks before - he was a major. He examined me. Had I not gotten that job at the telephone company, I would have gone back into the service. I was a staff sergeant at the time. I served with the best, (from West Point), when I was in the service. I would have gone back to Europe and made a military career and gone on to officers’ school. I liked it - I ate it up.
Young people today, (I won’t say all), are good. I think they need to think sometimes twice or three times before they do some of the things they do - weigh what the consequences will be. I’d give that advice to both of you. Don’t do something because Joe Dokes wants to do it. I’ll tell you about myself. I smoked at one time. Nobody didn’t make me smoke. I didn’t smoke because I liked it. I couldn’t tell you why I smoked. I never drink - if asked to have a drink. I would tell I don’t drink socially or otherwise. Don’t let nobody con you or push you in to doing something.
When I learned to drive, I bought my first car and didn’t even have a driver’s license. I could drive an old truck, but I’d never had a driver’s license. I went to Bland and bought that car and drove it home. I drove it to Wytheville and didn’t even have anyone to take with me. Nobody was at home with a driver’s license. I told him and he said, you know you could be fined for that. I said, “Yes Sir, I sure do. I understand that fully.” I didn’t even have to park. He said just pull your car over and come in here. I went in there and got my driver’s license and came on home. I didn’t spin the tires and didn’t care who outrun me. There’s not going to be a thing going on where you’re going unless you get there. Believe me, don’t never let nobody make you do something if you don’t want to.
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