from the upcoming book about A Living History of Central West Virginia
Back From the Dead Fred
By Rocky Osborne of Bickmore, WV
Frederick Hampton Given was born at Strange Creek, Clay County West Virginia prior to the turn of the 20th century. His mother died shortly thereafter and by the age of six, he was orphaned, when his father took an epileptic fit and fell into a fire. He was separated from his older brothers, Elden and Orville, to live with an uncle. Insensitive to his nephew's plight, his uncle took Fred's only possession from his departed father, a suit of clothes, and gave them to his own son. His uncle relegated him to a servant instead of making him feel a part of the family. Fred's Cinderella story had an ending five years later. Word came from Elden that work was available in the log camp where he had gone to work. Fred would start out as a water boy carrying water from camp to the woods for the men and draft animals. The night before he was to leave the uncle's farm, Fred hatched a plan. The only creature he disliked more than his uncle was his uncle's stud horse. Fred went to the barn at dusk to feed and picked up a chestnut burr on the way. On his way out of the barn, he eased up the horse's tail and stuck the burr on the underside of his tail up close to his tender parts. About the time Fred got back to the house, the stud lowered his tail and the burr bit into his flesh. The horse squealed and kicked until he raised his tail and got some relief. This was repeated several times. At last, the horse kicked the side out of the barn and went off down the road never to be seen again.
Fred was big for his years and a willing worker. He soon graduated from carrying water and began driving a team of horses hauling logs off the mountain. On one of their trips to town, he and Elden were staying in a boarding house. One night, Fred was bored and decided against the advice of Elden to venture out into the dark. He had acquired a set of steel "knucks" and some sand bags for personal protection as these log towns were rowdy when the wood hicks came to town, and many loggers lost their payday to robbers. A block down from the boarding house, Fred took a short cut through an alley. A brute of a man confronted him in the alley with the biggest knife Fred had ever seen demanding his hard earned pay. In a split second, he felt inside his coat pocket and found a sand bag, hurling it into the face of his attacker with all he could muster. Fred picked up his sand bag, turned, and ran back to where Elden and the others remained, spilling his tale between gulps of breath. An hour later, the constable knocked on their door.
"Have any of you been out this evening?" he asked. "We've been here all evening," Elden said.
"Well, there was a man killed in an alley near here this evening. Looks like his neck was broken. Somebody hit him hard with something."
Fred was ready for a change. He went to the army-recruiting center and lied about his age. World War I was raging in Europe. At sixteen, Fred excelled in Basic Training and soon he rose to the rank of sergeant and became a bayonet instructor. The United States had not entered the war in Europe yet. He was assigned to General Blackjack Pershing's outfit. The Mexican bandit, Poncho Via, had been crossing the Rio Grande raiding border towns and carrying his loot back to Mexico. Pershing was sent to capture Via and his gang. Pershing's men pursued Via to a mountain late into the day. Fred's outfit surrounded one side of the hill and Mexican troops finished the circle on the other. They had him; they thought. When day broke, Poncho Via and his men were nowhere to be found. The Mexican troops had allowed Via's gang through their lines in the night. Pershing was outraged. Before any further action could be taken, word came from Washington: with the sinking of a cargo ship crossing the Atlantic, the United States was in the war!
Fred's outfit was the first American troops to experience the hellish trenches of France. They had romantic ideas about war. They were unprepared for its realities. Mud and human filth filled the bottom of the trenches. A constant barrage of rifle fire, artillery, and the dreaded mustard gas made life horrible. Fred was undaunted by the experience at first. His courage could not protect him from bullets, though. He was shot through the leg, and taken from the battle to recover. Upon returning, he was more cautious. Fred was starting to have second thoughts about this conflict. The German's they killed were not evil men. They, like the Americans, were just doing their duty. They were suffering in their trenches just as much as Pershing's men were. The constant concussions of the artillery began to take its toll. Men broke down in shaking fits they called being "shell shocked.”
Fred was an easy target for an alert sniper. At just under six feet tall, he had to walk stooped over to keep his helmet from being visible to enemy fire. One afternoon Fred peeked over the top of the sandbags that rimmed the trench. A single bullet pierced his helmet and left a gaping hole in his skull above his left eye. There were no signs of life. Fred's corpse was carried from the trench and piled like stove wood with others who had met their fate that day. The Red Cross took records of dog tags of slain men and reported their fate back home.
Frederic Hampton Given was not yet of legal age to be in the Army, yet he had been killed in France. But for the grace of God, this would have been the end of Fred's story. Three days after Fred's shooting, a survey was made of dead men by the Salvation Army to ensure proper care be made of them. In checking Fred's dog tags, it was discovered that he was not stiff like the other corpses he lay with. To everyone's amazement, Fred was not dead! His carcass was again hauled to a field hospital. Here the surgeons installed a silver plate the size of a silver dollar over the hole in Fred's head and stitched him up. It was many months before Fred was well enough to make the journey home. He was a shadow of his former self. His muscular frame had been replaced by a pale skeletal form, which shook uncontrollably. Any sudden noise returned him to the trenches. He had nightmares and hallucinations. It was not safe to be within arm’s length during these episodes.
Fred mustered out in Clay and got a room boarding with the Shannon family. They had a daughter, Dorothy, who was near the age of Fred. They became fast friends. Fred continued to recover his strength, but the war had left its effects on him. As Dorothy and Fred's friendship grew, family members warned Dorothy not to become entangled with him due to his war baggage and earlier vagabond life.
Dorothy's mother warned, "He won't stay with you. He's never had a stable life. If he does stay, he will mistreat you!"
"But I love him!"
"If you burn a blister, you'll have to set on it. Do what you think is best."
And, with that sage advice, they were married. Mother was right about one thing; Fred had issues. On more than one occasion Fred hit her while he slept mumbling something about a German.
Fred could only fill his coffee cup half full due to his shaking hands. Woe to the person who surprised him with a loud noise! Everything seemed stacked against the survival of their family. He was rough and uncultured. Yet, for the first time in his life, he wanted to provide for someone else above himself.
Times were hard for the Givens clan. They migrated with Dorothy's family to Frederick, Maryland after a few years, dragging along three small children. They bought and ran a dairy farm with the help of Dorothy's father, Morgan. Fred went to work in the local paper mill to supplement their income from the farm. Daughter, Margaret, was born on the farm June 7, 1931. She would not be raised there, though. Morgan drank up the profits of the farm, the depression hit, and it was back to West Virginia as they lost the farm to the bank.
Fred got work in the Black Betsy Mine in Clay. The work and damp climate along Elk River did not agree with his asthma. After two years in Clay Fred found a ten-acre tract of land with a shanty on Beechy Ridge that had been taken for a store bill. He traded a horse and sewing machine for the tract and moved his family along with Morgan to the fresh air on Schoonover's knob. Fred returned to the only other trade he knew, the timbering business. Webster Hardwood had a log camp at Jodie on Rich Creek. Fred would walk five miles early on Monday morning, out Beechy Ridge, to catch the man trip, a five-ton flatbed truck, for the two-hour ride to Jodie. He would remain in camp until Friday evening when the truck returned him to the mouth of Eagle Fork to walk the five miles home.
Even after these many years, Fred still relived the war at times. He had made much progress. He was a loving husband and father to Dorothy, Ginny, Orin, and Orville, and especially Marg. Eva and a stillborn child would be born on Beechy Ridge. At times Fred and Dorothy would sleep apart when his nightmares were especially bad. He did on more than one occasion, hit her in his drift from the dream world to reality.
Marg became his buddy, when he was home and he spoiled her rotten. With the boys, he was still Sergeant Givens, but with his girls, he was Daddy. He never spanked Marg. Just a word or un-approving glance would send her into submission.
Over time, a young man, Forest Osborne, went to work in the camp at Jodie with Fred. He became Fred's bunkmate as the men slept two to a bed. Fred became Forest's protector and when needed his cohort in retaliating against pranks played on him. Forest would later say, "Fred Givens was better to me than my own Dad."
Forest started visiting Fred on the ridge. And the rest as they say is history. Marg was twenty, and though they liked Forest, Fred and Dorothy would not sign her marriage license. Marg, in true Fred fashion, lied about her age and was married at the home of preacher Tom Jones. On returning to the farm to inform her parents, Dorothy said, "If you burn a blister, you'll have to set on it."
Fred proved his critics wrong. He stayed the course. He became an advocate for this author and the greatest male influence in my life.
On Fred's deathbed, he lay in the Veteran's Hospital in Beckley, West Virginia. Ginny was a devout Christian and concerned about her Daddy's relationship with the Lord. She was a little intimidated to approach him.
Ginny said, "Daddy, have you ever asked the Lord to forgive you of your sins and be your savior?"
Fred smiled, "Oh yes! How do you think I raised you kids through the Depression? There were many times when I read the Bible and sought the Lord's guidance. I haven't always done right, but I always knew He was there to forgive me and help me."