The Big Sandy Mountaineer -

TALES OF OLD BIG SANDY: Harley Hurd: A tough skin concealed a heart of gold within

 

July 29, 2020

When I was a lad, there were a few people around Big Sandy who always seemed to be somewhere nearby. On the one hand, they were like the buttons on an old coat, maybe a little bit frayed, maybe the stitching was a little loose, but if it got cold out, if you felt a chill, you could count on them to close the gap for you. On the other hand, they were kind of like the fleas on a dog's back – always there, totally reliable in a sense, but you also knew they might haul off and bite you. You just didn't know when.

One of those people was Harley Hurd. First thing I want to say about Harley is that he was as sincere, as kind, and as caring as anyone I knew, in terms of the "grown-ups" that I interacted with. I was an only child and often, in the days before I started school, I would go to town with my dad. I wasn't used to being around many other people and generally they made me nervous, scared even. But there were some folks you always ran into -- they always gave you some comfort; they made you feel as if, suddenly the street opened up like an earthquake and my dad disappeared into the chasm, that person would be right there to make sure I was okay. Harley was that person as well.

I learned pretty young that my dad and Harley had been high school classmates and were lifelong friends. If you didn't know any better, though, you might think they could not stand the sight of one another. Dana Sibra was fairly reserved, even understated as a general rule. Harley Hurd was blustery and boisterous and full of the devil. And they would use their particular talents to try and get under each other's skin at every opportunity.

On one occasion (I was probably about eight or nine by then), I went into the Mint with my dad. It was in the afternoon, nice winter day, cold and clear. Farmers often had some free time during the winter and would hang around town once in a while. We sat down at the bar next to Harley and some other guy (I don't remember who it was, but I knew the other person). My dad ordered coffee and got me a soda pop. Harley was drinking some sort of mixed drink – he wasn't drunk but he was loud, as he could sometimes be, and involved in an emphatic "discussion" with the other fella about something. My dad sat right next to him. They did not acknowledge one another in any way. I sat there drinking my can of pop and my dad his coffee and Harley was, well, he was hollering a little bit to make his point. I don't recall the other guy saying a word, but Harley was on a roll so it didn't matter.

My dad leaned over to me and said, loudly enough for Harley to hear (and as if I didn't know Harley, which of course I did), my dad said something like, "this guy here, making all the noise, he's just a lot of talk. He doesn't really know what the hell he is talking about."

Harley heard this and he stopped. He turned around and smacked my dad on the shoulder and said, "Porky, cut that out. You shouldn't be filling that young boy's head with all of your bullshit." From that they were off to the races. Both of them were kind of laughing under their breath as they traded insults – Harley was loud and brash, Dana Sibra was quiet, but they just slammed each other for all they were worth. It went on for like fifteen minutes and then we left. The two of them had not exchanged a single civil word the entire time.

Often when they would meet up downtown or at the NAPA parts store or wherever, it followed this pattern. Harley was very kind to me, nurturing, and at the same time he was giving my old man hell up one side and down the other. I learned that "Porky" had been a nickname of my father in high school. Nobody ever called him that by the late 1960s, these two characters had graduated in about 1935. But Harley called him that all the time.

When I was in high school one of the teachers was talking about Harley's career in school sports and he referred to him as "one of the best natural athletes to ever come out of Big Sandy." By the time I knew Harley he didn't look the part so I asked my dad. He laughed. He said, "we were on the football team and Hurd was the running back. I was just a dumb lineman. The center would hike the football, the quarterback would give it to Hurd, and I would grab the guy across from me and throw him down in the mud. Hurd would run through the hole and score a touchdown. He got an award for it." This was my father's way of acknowledging that Harley had been a good football player.

My father died in 1993. I believe Harley died not long after that (I could have researched it but I seem disinclined to do any real work when I write these articles). At my father's funeral I remember Harley was there and he looked pretty rough. He made a point of handing me a sympathy card; most people put them in a basket provided for that, but Harley emphatically

gave the card directly to me.

Back at my mom's house I opened the card. It had just one line written in it, in the wobbly scrawl of an old man, unsteady penmanship brought on by all the things you lose, one by one, as you get close to the end of your life. It was hard to read, but I managed.

The card said, simply, "Dana was my best friend." Below that it was signed "Harley". I still have the card. As I grow old and begin to feel the losses associated with the passage of time, it is something that helps bond me to the memory of my father. I will have that card as long as I live.

I was not living in Big Sandy at that time, and I was not around when Harley passed. In fact, I never saw him again after the day of my father's funeral. But I didn't need to see him. Every time I walk down Main Street and pass the Mint, or go up by the old train depot, or over by the high school near the house where Harley lived – I see and hear Harley Hurd.

Harley Hurd and Dana Sibra were a couple of old dogs and each was the flea on the other one's back. There was a comfort in that occasional bite, for both of them. I am glad to say, in some odd way, I was bitten by it, too.

 
 

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