Reaching back in my memory banks, there are many people whom I am forever indebted to. I’ve spoken of my uncle Lynn Carl, and his memory shall forever be with me, along with a host of other great folks who helped shape the man I was to become throughout my young life. I feel I should do an article on each and every one of them, but it takes me time to gather and sort memories and echoes and put them all together. Each person I remember strikes an emotional chord in me; some are more melancholy, but most are pretty upbeat. But some, however, make me grin and chuckle right away. This is the story of one of those great men. This is the story of Joe Kenneth Holt.
On May 24, 1934, at Vendor, Arkansas, deep in the hills of rural Newton County, a son was born to my great-great-grandparents, Otis and Rachel Holt. He was the youngest child, and as such, some would accuse him of getting away with more than other kids would have. I wasn’t around to comment on that, but what I DO know is this: he was to grow into an immensely likable and important part of my childhood.
He grew to adulthood in the dirt poor, rural world of Newton County. He soon found he had a set of ready-made running buddies in the form of his three nephews, Stanley, Dennis and Glen Holt, the sons of his elder brother, Wayne. Though Joe was their uncle, you would think he was their brother, as they were only a few years apart.
Joe soon found his wild streak and ran the roads with the other folks who would one day come to dominate my childhood in their memories and stories. I could fill a book with these, but I’m still not sure that the statute of limitations has run out on some of them, so I will limit it!
There’s one of my favorites, where Joe and some of his running buddies obtained a case of dynamite and decided to test it out by strapping it around a huge oak tree, lighting the fuse and then driving off. They blew half the windows out of the houses and shops in Mt. Judea (pronounced “Mount Judy”) but, thankfully, nobody was hurt. Joe would later relate many stories, but always marvel that he survived.
There were times he nearly didn’t. His darkest moment, likely, came on the 1st of May, 1954, when he was a young man of 20. He was driving his father’s 2-ton Ford pickup from Jasper back towards Piercetown when he engaged another local friend in a race. He lost control near the area known as Flatwoods, leading them to strike a tree head on, killing his two passengers, Paul Gradon Norton and Cecil E. Smith. This would haunt Joe years later, as he would grimly mark the anniversary by solemnly saying ‘Today was the day.’ He was badly hurt in the wreck himself, but, thankfully, he survived.
As Joe grew, he matured, though he never lost that ‘wild and woolly’ streak that endeared him to me so much. I came around in late 1987, and as a child, I remember him well driving his red Honda four wheeler up the road to visit us at dad’s garage. He would pull up, with a little dog riding on the blanket in the basket he mounted on the front rack. He would grin before he ever shut the wheeler off, and then launch into talking with us.
If my grandpa, Glen Holt, was with us, he would inevitably try and bring up something to try and embarrass him. Stories of their misspent youth would flow and he would say ‘You remember that, Glen? Oh you REMEMBER THAT, Glen!!’ It always tickled me to see these two older men ribbing each other like a couple of 20 year olds.
Ah, the stories I could tell you of those two. Joe faced many hardships in his life, and he lived with regrets that he would rarely speak of, but weighed him down the same. However, he rarely ever let that sorrow spill over into the stories he told us. He focused on the good times and always kept us laughing. The sadness that was behind his eyes was rarely ever evident. I admire him for that more now than I ever did, being too young to understand when I was a kid.
Joe would often wear work shirts that he picked up at some store somewhere. Dad pointed out one time that some days he would be ‘Bill,’ some days ‘Sam’ some days ‘Bob.’ I don’t know if he ever had one that said ‘Joe’ or not, but I know I never saw it.
My dad referred to Joe as ‘Salty Joe’ and I picked that up. He would always go out of his way to come see us at deer camp, whether it be at Bass or above Mount Judy, and his appearance was always met with grins and slaps on the back. We loved Joe, now and always. He was a special person and he will forever be with us.
Years later, Joe bought a new tractor, a big blue New Holland, and sometimes, instead of driving his old Honda four-wheeler up to visit, he’d bring that tractor instead. He loved it so much that a picture of it is today engraved on his headstone.
As Joe aged, his health declined. Dad stopped by to see him one evening, and Joe came out, barley walking. Dad asked him ‘What are you doing, Joe?’ He laughed a bit and said ‘Oh, trying to die, I guess!’
I remember dad and me, standing in the woods near our house that overlooked Joe’s home at Vendor, that fateful day, January 27, 2008. We heard the ambulance coming down the creek and knew that Joe’s time had come.
We lost not only a neighbor that day, but a best friend, a great-uncle, and an all-around good ol’ boy that could never be replaced.
These short essays I type up do poor justice to the great people that inspired them, but I feel I have to do my part to try and tell just how great they were, and Joe was an amazing person.
I ask you again in this: remember your people, reach out to them while you still can.
I would give anything to see Joe Kenneth coming up the driveway on that old four-wheeler, his hat on and a big grin breaking out as he neared us, knowing that he was about to get into some ‘meanness!’
Tell your people’s stories, while you still can.