Laura Dean Bennett
Harry Simmons was born in Staunton, Virginia, in 1928.
According to my calculations, that makes him a grand age of 90 years old this year.
I recently visited with him at Pocahontas Center, and the first thing he told me was that he was “an old loner.”
“I grew up in a small house in a small place,” Simmons said. “We were poor people – never had much.
“I was born at home in Highland County, Virginia, in Mill Gap.
“The doctor who came was an old country doctor; Dr. Swecker was his name.
“Well, they told him my name would be Harry, but he wrote down the wrong name.
“He wrote down ‘Arlie.’
“My name was supposed to be Harry, not Arlie,” Simmons said definitely.
“But that’s what he wrote – Arlie – which was my dad’s name, and I was stuck with that as my legal name. But my mom and dad and everybody always called me Harry.
“I like Harry better.”
Simmons’ dad was Arlie Simmons and his mom was Fanny Simmons.
He had two step-sisters and one step-brother, and he grew up during the Depression.
“Oh, I remember the Depression all right,” he said. “I remember the rationing. When you went to the store, you just got what the coupons would allow you to get.
“Times were hard for everybody. We didn’t have any indoor plumbing, no running water or anything like that. But then a lot of people didn’t. My parents worked hard. Daddy raised hogs and kept a big garden.
“Mother had chickens and every Sunday, when we could, we ate chicken.”
Simmons has a great laugh, and he laughs when he remembers his mother’s cooking.
“My mother’s fried chicken was really good,” he said, “and she had the best cream pies you ever ate!
“I remember my mother got out and helped garden and picked berries every summer, and she killed plenty of rattlesnakes, too.
“Sometimes when we’d be out working, Daddy would say to me, ‘Son, would you like to have a cold drink?’
“And I’d say, ‘Yes sir, but I don’t have any money.’
“He’d smile at me and he’d say, ‘Well, I have a nickel, so you go on over the hill to the store and get you a Coca-Cola.’”
Simmons said he always liked dogs and cats, and when he was growing up, he had a goat.
His blue eyes sparkle as he begins to tell about a few hijinks involving the family’s Billy goat, appropriately named, Billy.
“One time, I got on Billy and rode him over the bank, but then he commenced to running, and I couldn’t get off. I yelled, ‘Whoa, Billy! Whoa, Billy!’
“Well, you know how it ends – I finally fell off,” Simmons said with a wry smile.
“When I was at home, I enjoyed taking care of things myself – I mowed and trimmed my own yard. And I loved to fish and hunt. I started fishing with my dad in the river near our place. One time we really got into the fish. When we counted them, we had caught twenty-five trout between the two of us!
“We took ‘em home, and my mom cleaned ‘em and cooked ‘em and we ate all of ‘em.”
Simmons had a brush with death when he was 12 years old.
“One summer day I was helping my dad and his friend in the garden pickin’ bugs off the potatoes,” he recalls. “Dad said it was pretty hot, and the other man said some water would be good. So they sent me up to the house to get a jug of water.
“Well, I passed a patch of the prettiest strawberries. I ate a bunch of them and right after that I got really sick.
“My legs both swelled up and turned black.
“Daddy took me to Monterey to the doctor and the doctor said, ‘If you don’t get him to the hospital quick, you’ll have no boy.’
“Daddy told me to stay there and he ran to find someone to drive Mother and Dad and me to the hospital.
“He found the sheriff, and he drove us to the hospital in Staunton.
“When we got there, we had to get in the elevator to go to the operating room.
“And I’ll never forget what mother said: ‘I can’t ride in no aggravator!’
“Well that doctor said it was blood poison. He punctured my legs with a knife and that stuff shot up to the ceiling!
“We couldn’t figure it was anything else except the poison that dad put on the potatoes for the potato bugs. I guess I was lucky it turned out like that,” Simmons said quietly.
Simmons also told about when he first left home.
“One day my dad called me over and he said to me, ‘Harry, I’ve kept you for 18 years, and now it’s time for you to get out on your own. So I did. I moved in with my sister in Monterey.
“Well, pretty soon, it came a big snow. Daddy must have somehow called my sister on the telephone, because she came to me and said, ‘Daddy says he needs you to come home. They’re out of wood.
“So I went back home for a while to cut wood and load it in for them.”
Simmons went looking for work when he got back to Monterey.
Someone suggested he ask around at the state garage.
“Sure enough, they hired me,” he said.
So his first job was working on a crew paving the streets of Monterey.
“After that, I worked on the road, trimming and all that stuff,” he added.
Simmons worked as a male aide at King’s Daughters’ Hospital in Staunton for 31 years, where he “did a little bit of everything.”
But before Simmons went to work at the hospital, he had been working at a flour and feed mill.
On November 5, 1955, he met with a tragic accident there.
He lost his right arm when it was caught in a mixer and had to be amputated.
That traumatic event is a painful memory, as I can see a haunting look pass across Simmons’ face.
But he quickly moves on and continues to tell me his life story.
“After that happened, the doctors helped me get the job at the hospital,” he said. “And the hospital was a good place for me to work. I loved working over there.”
When he retired from King’s Daughters’ Hospital, he was presented with a handsome, engraved gold watch, which he proudly wears every day.
“I hardly ever missed a day of work,” he said. “It felt like I had an important job to do.
“I got along with everybody.
“All the doctors and nurses liked me. They said I was the best aide they ever had,” Simmons said with a wistful smile.
When I ask if he has any advice for young people, Simmons says there’s little point in giving advice.
“They’re going to do it the way they’re going to do it, so there’s no use in me saying anything.”
Simmons has been at the Pocahontas Center for four years.
He spends his days wheeling around the nursing home in his wheelchair and “in the afternoon, I take a nap,” he said.
He confides to me that he’s not especially easy to get along with, although I see only the smiling, friendly side of the man.
He misses his sister, Agnes, who was married to Ralph Bennett and lived in Arbovale.
“I lived by myself for 52 years in Staunton,” he recalled. “My sister Agnes was good to come all the way from Arbovale to help me sometimes. Finally it got too hard for her.
“She just got to the point where she said, ‘I can’t do it anymore.’
So, he came to Pocahontas County to live with his sister.
But his sister is gone now, and Simmons confides that he misses Agnes more than anyone else.
“My daddy’s buried up in Arbovale,” he said. “A long time ago, he had my name written next to his on his gravestone.
“I’m just waiting here ‘til it’s time to be buried next to my dad.”
Laura Dean Bennett may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org