I spent a few minutes out in the cold Christmas day, walking a portion of a path I've known since childhood.

I had a camera hanging from my shoulder, of course, although I wasn't really in photographer mode after just a few minutes of wind on that gray afternoon. Upon reviewing the few shots I did take, however, I realized there was a single image which captured much of my early life in a single frame.

Allow an old man to explain and indulge in childhood memories, if you will.

I grew up in Thelma, a community near Paintsville in Johnson County which follows the railroad tracks and a section of the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River. My grandfather, Donis Preston, had an unusual business near the first of two railroad crossings in Thelma, a combination grocery store/U.S. Post Office/VW Beetle garage.

That family store was an interesting place for a kid with an overactive imagination to grow up. The post office part was mostly off limits as my grandfather couldn't allow myself and my brothers to run loose in there, but the store and garage and surrounding grounds (littered with various “bugs” awaiting parts or repairs) were our playground. We burned boxes and other garbage in a big hole beneath a walnut tree between the store and the railroad, and we would walk along those tracks just as often as the road itself as we wandered from daylight to dark.

Yes, this is one of those “it's a miracle we all survived” scenarios. We carried also carried BB guns and quite often had high-powered fireworks including the legendary “M-80” in our pockets.

My family lived in a small house about a mile away from the store and my grandparent's place. That short stretch of road is surely where my love of bicycles was born. It may not have been a long stretch, but it went right past “the trailer court” as well as “the subdivision” and “the housing project” where all of my friends lived.

Later in my early life, the Carl D. Perkins Rehabilitation Center was built near the store. The center brought what seemed like the world's smoothest and most expansive parking lots ever, and served as a magnet for the bike riding kids of Thelma.

From anywhere along that part of Thelma, you can look up and see a rocky mountain top on the other side of the river. While I was never part of even a single effort to climb that mountain, we spent a lot of time plotting our way up to camp there. I was maybe 10 years old when someone did indeed climb up there and string a white sheet at the top, providing proof it could be done.

As bike riders in search of adventures, we often rode “to the head of Thelma” to play in three caves alongside the road. I was a grown man before I ever heard the shallow caves were created as workers mined stone to be used in construction of the nearby Paintsville Country Club.

As mentioned, we spent a lot of time on the twin set of tracks in Thelma. This was nothing unusual for the time as the linear path provided great places to shoot BB guns and light fireworks. Scrambling underneath parked coal cars (holding your breath in fear of hearing the metallic jerk of the train beginning to move) to get to the other side of the tracks was just another part of growing up.

My grandfather, who grew up in Wheelwright when it was a true coal town, always made sure we understood that railroad “detectives” were not to be trifled with, and we should never do anything which would damage railroad property or an actual train. Back on my Christmas Day walk of 2018, I turned around and traveled a short distance to catch a glimpse of the old railroad bridge and tunnel as the tracks diverged from the river. The old tunnel, which leads to the community of Concord, provided the shortest path between Thelma and Paintsville. The old bridge, an example of the “camel back” design once built into such structures in America, has since been replaced by an ugly steel span.

While I never traveled through that tunnel, the old bridge was a place of many memories for me. Back in the days when ammo was cheap, my buddy Dale Davis and I would wait for high water levels and take a .22 rifle out onto the bridge, picking off basketballs and plastic milk jugs as they washed downstream.

I also trace my ongoing fear of heights to that bridge. To get across, you had to step between the open wooden ties, with a clear view of the river far below. The sensation terrified me even as a young kid, but grew much worse as I got older. Adding to that, Dale and myself once climbed down onto one of the cut stone supports for the bridge and got so caught up in shooting basketballs that we did not hear a train approaching.

Rather than try to scramble up and beat the train, we chose to sit right there and let it pass. The intensity of that vibration was unbelievable and I prayed for my life the entire time the train was passing by.

There are now signs posted near the edge of the new bridge warning trespassers to stay clear. As an adult, I had no problem heeding that advice.

Shivering as I turned back toward the family homestead I couldn't help but be thankful to have survived growing up in such a wonderful place.

Tim Preston can be reached at tpreston@journal-times.com, or by telephone at (606) 474-5101.

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