I was eight years old when my parents decided to move to St. Albans, West Virginia. Was not that far from where we did live but it was a whole new wonderful world to me. There were actually houses all around me and so many kids to play with that I was sure it was the closest thing to heaven. And being the explorer that I was born to be, I explored every nook and cranny in the neighborhood.
Right across the street from us was a big white two story house that was inhabited by an elderly woman, her husband and her sister. The elderly woman was in a wheelchair and it was the first time I ever saw a person in one. All three of these people treated me as if I were their own. My parents became fast friends with them as well. Sally was the sister of the elderly woman and I thought she was ancient. No doubt she was no more than forty but she appeared ancient to me. And she was a little strange. Maybe it was because she lived with them I thought to myself or maybe it was that she was rather homely but she had an aura about her that was downright scary.
By some circumstance, my parents decided to take a trip to Pence Springs and they asked Sally if she would like to go. Of course, she jumped at the chance and I remember having to sit in the back of the car with her. She was seated behind my dad who was driving and I was sitting behind my mom and clinging to the side of the car. I had no idea how far way Pence Springs was nor did I know at that time what the place was famous for but I was about to find out the answer to both. I kept glancing over at Sally: She had on those old type of stockings that looked like leg warmers to me and laced up black shoes. Reminded me of the teachers I had and that too scared me.
The trip seemed to take forever and ever. Not sure that we stopped at all along the way. I found out why we were going when my parents discussed with Sally that sulfur water was plentiful there and that a woman at our church had a sister who was a warden at a women’s state prison! And where was that prison? It was in Pence Springs. I knew the word “prison” and that was enough to conjure up more fear: First it was fear of Sally and now it was fear of going to a prison. My heart raced. We finally got to the prison and as soon as we all got out of the car, we were headed to the front door of a huge brick house near it. I remember my mom knocking on the door and a lovely older woman came out and greeted us. She was the warden of the prison.
We got the full tour and all I remember were women making jewelry out of coal. I knew what coal was for my mom worked for a coal company as an executive secretary. But I had never seen a coal mine in my life. Those women prisoners seemed to have a hundred sets of eyes that stared right through me—ah another fear aside from Sally.
As for the sulfur water, I had never seen it or smelled it before in my life. After we left the prison, we went somewhere that had a building and outside were lots of glass gallon jugs. Enough right there to set an eight year old mind’s ablaze with all types of thoughts. My dad stopped the car and again, we all got out. Right then and there I knew what sulfur water smelled like! It smelled like rotten eggs and I thought I’d throw up my insides. Some old weathered looking man approached us and asked if we’d like to tour the place. I wanted to run away to anywhere but to go in there but did I have a choice? No much to my disdain.
The tour seemed like it lasted days and days. The smell was overwhelming and gagging. When we departed that building, Sally insisted on filling up two gallon jugs of that horrid sulfur water. My parents declined thank heavens. I suppose I should add an important fact here and that is that long ago and perhaps today, many people found sulfur water to be healing of a multitude of ailments. The well-known resort, The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, was famous for its sulfur water and still is to this day.
I’m think we had lunch at the warden’s home before we toured that sulfur building. And as we got in the car, Sally insisted upon having those two gallon jugs of that nasty smelling stuff with her in the back seat and of course, I was sitting on the other side of her—way on the other side of her. The trip back took us on many windy roads for they are prevalent all over West Virginia. About an hour later, those jugs rolled all over the floor of the backseat and one crashed into the other spewing out that horrid rotten egg smelly liquid all over the car and all over my feet. Windows were rolled down instantly and instantly my dad stopped the car and we all got out. It was downright horrible. And we were in the middle of nowhere.
My mom used tissues to wipe my feet but that did not help the prevailing smell coming from the car. The day was hot as Hades and there was no choice but to get back into the car and for my dad to drive us back home. There was no car air conditioning then so you can imagine how awful it was. Sally had a death grip on the surviving jug of sulfur water and I had my head out of the window on my side. Seemed like we were never going to get home and I was getting sicker by the minute. The car was now permeated with that horrid smell.
My dad had to make three stops for me to get out of the car and one for my mom. Sally never did get out the car until we arrived home and that arrival seemed to take months. The minute my dad stopped the car, I jumped out and ran to our front door; right close behind me was my mom. Unfortunately my dad had to walk Sally across the street with that surviving gallon jug of the nastiest smelling stuff in the world.
Thank God the trip was on a Saturday for at least I did not have to miss school that coming Monday. I was sick the rest of the weekend—car sick and sick from smelling sulfur water. And having to sit beside Sally all that time did not help matters either. To me, that entire trip was a disaster in every way, shape and form—a scary woman, seeing women prisoners, that horrid smelling water and a day that was as hot as Hades. That was my first and last trip in my life to Pence Springs, West Virginia. Albeit it is a nice place to visit when one is an adult and when one is living in today’s world but then? It was a trip I never ever forgot. Wish I could forget it.
Epilogue: Eight years after this trip, my parents and I learned that Sally’s sister had died. And what did Sally do? She married her brother-in-law! Maybe there was something rejuvenating in that sulfur water after all. But I never want to find out if it’s true or not.