It was probably August, 1978 or 1979. My family was at the West Virginia State Fair and I was six or seven years old. As usual, evening was closing in and our day at the fair was ending. My cousins and I had eaten our weight in elephant ears, corn dogs, and funnel cakes and ridden the fair ground rides until our brains were scrambled. Our parents and grandparents were equally exhausted after trolling through the agricultural contest entries and eating their weight in Polish sausages. It had been a long, hot, dusty day. We were gathered at the tent of a family friend who arrived every year from Louisiana to sell Troy-Bilt tillers. He was near the livestock buildings so you can imagine the end-of-day hay and manure smell.
Suddenly, there, coming along the walkway, flanked by two Secret Service agents, was Senator Robert Byrd. One agent was carrying Senator Byrd's fiddle because that night, on the main stage, West Virginia's very own United States Senator was going to play the heck out of some down-home bluegrass.
Unless you're from West Virginia, you don't understand the mystique of Senator Byrd or the adoration we mountaineers had for him. Democrat or Republican, city boy or country girl, coal miner or white collar office worker in Charleston, everybody loved him because in a state most of the country didn't give a rat's ass about, Senator Byrd gave us attention, love, and money. (Most of you non-West Virginians call it pork. Whatever. Scoff if you must. Sniff. He brought us out of the dark, literally, and into the 20th century.)
When Senator Byrd walked through the fairgrounds, time slowed. We all stopped to watch him pass through, smiling and waving as he did so, and I vividly remember my little feet carrying me to him as quick as they could go and shouting, "Senator Byrd! Senator Byrd! My Daddy ate dinner with you!" Because what my six-or-seven-year-old brain knew of Senator Byrd at that time was that he was a legend, and said legend had eaten dinner with my father's Fraternal Order of Police lodge just a few months prior, and I felt compelled to share that nugget of information with the man himself. What he said back to me is lost to my fading memory, but I do remember his smile and that he hugged me.
Senator Byrd, you will be dearly missed by West Virginians the world over. Fiddle on, my hillbilly brother, wherever you are.
*Image credit: Berkeley Springs, WV