By Judy Nolen Hylton
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With acreage came friendship. When the Wellses bought their property from Hylton Real Estate, located on The Stoplight corner (site of the former Brame Hotel), they got to know the owner, Darlene Hylton, as well as her associate, Judy Nolen Hylton. When Judy learned that Randall had done work in oral history, she gave him a several-page narrative that she had written in 2000 at the urging of her daughter Nicole. It had been printed in the Floyd Press on Feb. 22, 2001. In 2014 she and Randall created a more complete and formal version, with a few details supplied by her mother, Lucille–who honored Randall by permitting him to include this story in Floydiana.
Judy’s father, Edward Isaac Nolen spent most of his life in Floyd County, Edd might also be called one of the Came Backs. During World War II, he traveled to Roanoke to enlist in the Army, immediately went into training, and ended up serving from 1942 to 1945. He fought in North Africa, then Sicily, where he was not only wounded in his left thumb and hand but was struck by shrapnel in his left arm and hip. After leaving the hospital he became a military chauffeur in North Africa; then he stayed for six months at a hospital in Pennsylvania.
❀ ❀ ❀On the morning of February 11, 1960, two brothers drove to Edmund Huff’s sawmill, located on Road 637, now known as Chestnut Lane. Louis, alternatively Lewis, had been born in 1915 (about eight years after the death of “Captain” Tompkins in 1907). Edd was born in 1919 (ten years before Margie Keith. Both men were accustomed to grist mills and sawmills. Their father, Amos Cabel Nolen, 1875-1963, owned both Spangler and Nolen Mills—water-powered operations that ground corn and wheat into flour and cornmeal. (For more information about “Cab” Nolen and the two mills, see Webb and Cox, p. 142 and pp. 118 ff.) Their mother was Sallie Huff Nolen (1880-1963), no relation to Edmund. The Huff sawmill, where the brothers had been working for quite a while, stood near the Blue Ridge Parkway, which the brothers had helped to build for 30 cents an hour.
Louis was forty-five years old. As a timber-cutter, he felled the big trees and sawed off their limbs. Edd, forty-one and an Army veteran, was a logger—i.e., he dragged big logs to the portable sawmill set up in the woods to cut them into lumber. In the early years men used a team of horses and tied a chain to the logs to pull them to the saw. Later on, some people used a skidder–a machine that pulled a log to a collection site by re-winding a cable attached to it–but Edd used a tractor.
Today they had loaded and hauled slab-wood to Tom Huff’s house after sawing it the night before. As they returned to the mill site, a friend named Rural Shortt stopped by and helped them cut more slab-wood. This material is created when the saw cuts bark off logs like the rind of a pineapple and shears off some of the wood, about two inches thick in long boards. Rather than being discarded, those boards are cut into approximately twelve-inch pieces and used for firewood. The families also liked to split those pieces into strips for wood cook-stoves.
It had rained very hard the night before, and the mill was outdoors rather than covered. Usually Louis would have done the off-bearing—i.e., catching each slab as it came off the saw and hauling it to the tall stack, a heavy and back-breaking job. But today he was lifting each slab off the pile and handing it to Edd to feed into the saw to cut twelve-inch pieces for firewood. This time as Louis transferred a length of wood, the pile at their backs fell on them. Slabs covered the tractor and knocked Louis, then Edd, into the blade. After a moment of shocked realization, the former cried out, “I’ve lost a hand!” Edd yelled, “I have, too!” Their friend immediately grabbed any possible item to cover the bleeding. The brothers climbed into Rural’s black ’56 Chevrolet and headed to the clinic in the town of Floyd (now the headquarters of Community Action on Rt. 221 S.). Driving as fast as possible, Rural blew the horn to get through the red light at Locust Street.
As they made their way into the clinic, Dr. Patton immediately gave a shot to Rural because he himself was in near-shock. Other staff members rushed to help the brothers by giving them an injection. bandaging their arms, and (before the days of the Rescue Squad) phoning for the ambulance. Rodney Thomas, the driver, transported them to Lewis Gale Hospital in downtown Roanoke. During the trip, both men remained conscious and sat up.
Meanwhile, Rural and his brother Dave, one of them driving Edd’s green ‘52 Ford pickup, arrived at Edd’s house on Shooting Creek Road, just above its slope down Shooting Creek Mountain. Lucille happened to be at home and away from her sewing machine at J. Freezer & Son. “The factory didn’t always have steady work,” she explained fifty-five years later, “so there would be weeks they would be off the job until more orders came in.” (“Staccato of Needles,” below.) The friends also brought the brothers’ wallets. Three of the children were in school: Joyce, seventeen, was in Floyd High; while Curtis, fourteen, and Kenneth, eleven, were in Floyd Elementary (now School House Fabrics). Curtis heard about the accident when a student returned from town after getting supplies for a teacher, but Joyce and Kenneth learned of it only when riding the school bus that afternoon.
But Judy, age five, was at home. She remembers that as her daddy’s truck pulled into the driveway, her mom looked out the den window and exclaimed, “Oh, no, what happened?!” There was no telephone, so Lucille took Judy to Minnie Board’s to keep her while she went to the hospital. As she was driving north on Rt. 221, the State Police went to the accident site and retrieved Louis’s right arm in hopes of saving it for reattachment. But this attempt proved impossible, so it was donated for someone to use the bones.
When Lucille arrived, both men were in surgery. Dr. Richard Fisher told her about Edd: “If I can keep the one blood vessel alive in the thumb, I can save his left arm.” Then about Louis: “He has lost his right arm just below the elbow and we are smoothing up the rough edges and sewing it up.”
Louis remained in the hospital for five days and later returned for a skin graft. Edd’s left arm had been held only by one blood vessel, the skin, and his coveralls. It was saved but only after a lot of surgeries. The firing arm of this decorated soldier–once an expert gunner and rifle marksman–was so damaged, however, that it was never of much use and stayed at an angle. He remained in the hospital for two weeks the first time and returned for more surgery involving bones, nerves, and tendons, as well as for skin grafts. One of these last required that the skin of Edd’s left side and stomach section be opened and the arm be put inside the skin, which was pulled over the arm and attached to it. This variation on a sling remained for six weeks before he returned to have it taken loose.
One time Edd went to McGuire Veterans Hospital in Richmond. The staff gave him no encouragement and advised amputation. Refusing, he continued to depend on Dr. Fisher to follow the best course, and he always felt there was no doctor as good.
The day after the accident it began to snow, and at least fifty-five inches built up during March. The mountains were battered with storm after storm of foot-deep snow, the depth multiplied many times in drifts. This was the famous “Big snow of the ‘60s.” Travel was hampered and electricity lost as drifts piled up and roads became closed for several days. For water, Edd’s family melted snow. Edd and Louis were also farming when the accident happened, so the family had to feed the cattle. With the snow being so deep, a distant relative named Jack Frost Nolen came from Roanoke and stayed to help with the cattle and farm duties.
The snow eventually melted and they all survived their losses: Louis’s right arm and Edd’s left, the snow of the 60s and the hospital bills. But the brothers faced drastic changes. They had to adapt to saw-milling and farming. Instead of sitting down, however—they went back to work. In those days, one didn’t think of disability income, physical therapy, and home-health nurses. The men taught themselves through trial and error how to deal with their new lives.One year later Louis returned to sawmill work for Austin Goad, followed by Edd two years later. However, during this time they farmed, cut firewood, planted gardens, mowed and baled hay, harvested corn, worked on farm equipment, and did anything necessary. A photograph shows Edd baling hay in June, four months after the accident. The brothers learned to work with one hand each. Louis had lost his right arm and had to use his left hand. Edd’s left hand was there but not moveable, and he had to be careful: often when he came in from work, it was scratched and bleeding where a stick of wood or something had hit it. His arm and hand were very tender, furthermore, and the skin broke easily.
It was amazing how much work these brothers did and how they did so. They had always been together and now they took Louis’s left hand and Edd’s right to make one good pair. While working on tractors, etc., one man would hold the screw or bolt and the other would use the screwdriver or wrench. When they built and repaired fences, one would hold the nail with his good hand while the other used the hammer. They mowed, raked, baled, and packed hay, each with his specific role. When they mowed hay, Louis would rake and Edd would bale; Edd would drive and Louis would pack. They had a routine: Edd would go buy gas for the tractors, Louis would plow the gardens, and Edd would mow the yard. The older brother would tie one end of a string around his arm stub and the other end to the power saw, then cut firewood, while Edd held the wood or loaded it. They would feed the cattle, give them shots, and help deliver calves in the middle of the night or whenever. There was no job that the two could not do with their pair of hands.
On winter days they would play checkers, dominoes, or cards with the children. To play cards with one hand could be a little difficult, but not for these men. Louis had a little box that would hold his cards in the crack where the top and bottom fit together, while his younger brother would slip them between the fingers of the injured hand. Anything can be accomplished; you just have to figure out how.
Not only did they do their own farm work, but they also were often found helping neighbors and family: mowing hay, cutting corn, cutting wood, plowing gardens, pushing snow off their driveway in winter, taking them to doctors’ appointments, sitting with the sick, or doing whatever a neighbor needed. As the children grew up, married, and had homes of their own, they would often help them. They helped build their houses, work the gardens, and keep the wood stoves burning while they were at work, or feed the dog and cat while they were on vacation. The brothers worked on Curtis and Kenneth’s farm or did whatever was needed. Then the grandchildren came along, and they would often find Edd, Louis, or Grandma Lucille picking them up from school, hauling bicycles, or taking them to the pool, to the store, or back home (often with an extra dollar in their pocket).
The unmarried brother played a big part in the lives of Edd’s children. They never knew life without him, and the dinner table wasn’t complete without him there. Father’s Day, Christmas, and birthdays always included Louis. The same with the grandchildren: he was another grandpa, riding them on the tractor, walking with them to see the cows, hiking in the woods, playing school, holding a tea party, or doing whatever the little ones wanted.
Edd always drove and Louis rode along, both wearing the same style of hat. The younger brother wore dark-colored work clothes but his partner favored bibbed overalls. In cooler weather Edd liked to wear coveralls and Louis a jacket. What do you do with a pair of gloves when you need only one? Each man would turn the unusable glove inside-out to make another left or right one. If they had preferred the same style, they would probably have shared one pair, but Edd liked the brown jersey and his brother the yellow fuzzy. Acquaintances spoke of them as Edd-‘n-Louis as if they had one name. People never came to see just one of them; they’d always ask, “Is Edd-‘n-Louis here.”
The men had worked side by side almost all their lives. One of their final landmarks was a religious conversion in October, 1997, when Pastor Richard Thomas asked, “Would you like to be forgiven for all your sins and accept Christ into your heart?” Edd answered “Yes”; then came “Me, too.”
On January 7, 1998, Edd passed away at the age of seventy-eight, at the V.A. Hospital in Salem, Virginia. Louis had never lived without his brother, so now at eighty-four he had to survive another loss, his hardest.