#SoCS – 5/26/18 – Appalachia: Memorial Day

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It’s Memorial Day weekend and that’s an important holiday in Appalachia. It’s a holiday that honors lost loved ones, whether they were lost in war or died of natural causes, in this region of the U.S. In Appalachia, it’s a weekend where families reunite, have large meals together, and decorate the graves of their deceased relatives with flowers. Across Appalachia, Memorial Day is most often called Decoration Day.

When I was growing up, and even now, the family would congregate where most of the relatives were buried. In my case, that was at my grandparent’s home in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Every nuclear family within the extended family would bring beautiful flowers to decorate each grave. Often, that would involve going to three or four cemeteries.

Memorial Day at the cemetery was also a social occasion. Families who seldom saw each other would have a chance to talk and catch up while decorating the graves.

After decorating the graves, everyone would go to my grandmother’s house for a large meal and a visit with each other afterward. It was one of the most important family holidays of the year.

We still honor our lost loved ones in Appalachia in much the same way. Families are smaller. There are fewer large family meals. Instead of meals in grandma’s kitchen, they are often prepared on the grill. You will still find people hunting flowers a few days before the Memorial Day weekend to decorate gravesites. They will still enjoy visiting with family and friends in the cemeteries. It’s getting more difficult to find children who know what “Decoration Day” really means and who it honors.

#SoCS – 5/19/18 – Stories of #Appalachia – The Postman and the Dog

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Up until I was in my 20s, my uncle lived deep into the Birch Branch hollow  (pronounced “holler” in the eastern Kentucky dialect). He lived in a cabin and with him lived his female Doberman Pinscher, Gertrude. For awhile, he also had a male Doberman Pinscher named Sue, after Roger Miller’s song, “A Boy Named Sue.”

But this story is about Gertrude. My uncle was a postal service worker in Magoffin County, Kentucky. He delivered mail and Gertrude accompanied him. Mail carriers in rural areas tend to drive slowly between stops and my uncle certainly did. One reason he drove slowly is because of where Gertrude rode in/on the station wagon that he drove. She rode on top of it. My uncle and Gertrude were something of a legend in Magoffin County because this was quite a sight to passers-by.

My uncle passed away in 1974 and left poor Gertrude behind. She was old then and very bonded to him. She lived the last years of her life on my cousin’s porch, in a cushy dog house, undoubtedly grieving for my uncle. She was bonded and there was little to do for her although my cousin certainly tried.

A man and his dog.

Stories of #Appalachia – Birch Branch Today

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My grandfather’s farm, in Magoffin County, KY, USA, located in the heart of Appalachia, is no more now in 2018. It was located at the intersection of the small dirt road, Birch Branch, and a county road that was only a little more well-traveled, Burning Fork. My grandparents have been gone now for many years and the farm sold off. I only have one reason now to go back to Birch Branch and that is a much-loved cousin who still lives in the area. I guess a second reason is to gaze longingly at what used to be the farm and wish for things that used to be. I feel less and less able to do that and more likely just to remember it in my heart and mind.

Today, unless you can remember Birch Branch and my grandfather’s farm in what used to be lovely eastern Kentucky, you wouldn’t recognize it. The road is the same, dirt and some gravel. But where my grandfather’s and great uncle’s farms were beside it, now there is a trailer park. Not a well-maintained trailer park, but trailers with neglected little children running around in dirt yards and dogs tied out in the heat on chains. Usually, there are men sitting on the steps of the trailers, during the day when they should be working. There are no jobs. The unemployment rate in the county is upwards of 33 percent. They either don’t think of it or don’t have the means to travel to find a job like generations before them did.

You’ve heard of the opioid problem in the U.S.? You’re looking at it when you view what is now where my grandfather’s farm used to be. Instead of working, these men are taking pain pills. OxyContin, Percocet, Hydrocodone, any of the codeine or morphine=based drugs they can get. Most of them aren’t just temporarily high because of some sort of problem. They are the long-term addicted. If they ever had job skills, they lost them long ago. Generations of men just like them lost them long ago. It is the cycle of poverty and drug abuse.

Such things had never been heard of when my grandfather farmed this land. If you couldn’t find a job around home, you joined the military or you left home and worked away. You didn’t give up and sit on the steps of a trailer stoned out of your mind day after day after day. I find these people and this lifestyle disgusting.

The creek is still there, filled with trash. I can still envision the part of the land that was my great-uncle’s. He had a beautiful collie dog named Lassie who I played with as a child in the green pasture land. The horrible drug trailers populate that land now.

Some of you may think that the loss of coal mining is responsible for this problem. Not so. Magoffin County is not a coal mining county. The loss of self-respect and the availability of drugs is responsible for the problem. When I visit, I want to scream at these people to get in their cars and find a job. It wouldn’t help.

Politicians can discuss the opioid problem, but until they can find jobs for these people, the opioid problem will remain. It may, right now, be too late. I hate to sound cynical about an area that I loved so much, but I don’t expect this social and cultural problem to be solved in my lifetime. Magoffin County, KY is certainly not the only county in an area as big as Appalachia to have exactly the same problem.

Stories of Appalachia: Birch Branch

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There is a little creek that runs up a hollow (pronounced “holler” in eastern Kentucky) called Birch Branch. Now in case you don’t know what a holler is, I’ll tell you. It is the very narrow valley between two mountains. I’m not sure if that term is specific to Appalachia, but that’s the only place I’ve ever heard it used. Birch Branch is the creek that was beside the farms and houses where my family, for many generations back, lived and thrived. The name came from the Native Americans. I assume it was named because of the slight river birch trees that grow by the creek.

I didn’t live there. I grew up in northeastern Kentucky which is still Appalachia, but it isn’t the heart of the region. Birch Branch and the area around it, which is in Magoffin County, Kentucky, is in the heart of Appalachia.

When I was growing up, we used to visit my grandparents and other relatives in and around Birch Branch very frequently. That area was originally where my maternal grandmother’s people lived and, when I was a girl, most of them still lived there. My mother, dad, and I were often there every weekend. I developed an understanding of Appalachia and its people because I am one of its people. My mother grew up there. I have deep Appalachian roots through her that extend back to the Revolutionary War.

Back to Birch Branch. It was a beautiful place back in those days. Heavily wooded. Mountainous. A few homes miles apart. The road was dirt and gravel. My grandfather and grandmother married and bought a house on that road in 1901 along with a beautiful farm. They raised eight children in that farmhouse, including my mother.

By the time I came along, they had moved to another farm house on what they called the main road, an intersecting road with Birch Branch. All of my childhood, my cousins and I would play up and down the Birch Branch road and in that creek. We heard stories of what had happened there in the past. One story was that one of my great-grandfather’s wives had gotten angry with him and thrown herself into the creek. I’ll have to tell you that it would be very hard to drown yourself in that creek since the water level is usually low. That story is part of the family legend.

One particularly poignant memory for me is a trip I took up Birch Branch with my grandfather in his cart pulled by his mules. We went to his family’s homeplace, which was farther on from Birch Branch. I remember that, even as a child, the beauty of that place struck me. Green, lush, pure, clean. Not like it is today. The remains of the log cabin in which my grandfather had grown up were in the wonderous meadow to which he took me. I’ll never forget that special day. Circa 1960s.

Birch Branch is part of my heritage. Stay tuned for Part 2. Birch Branch today.

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The stress that permeated his family was unbearable. There were no jobs. No way to make a living. He was thinking of leaving the small town in the Appalachian Mountains to find work elsewhere. He would try to come home on the weekends. So many in generations before him had done the same. Others had moved their families to cities, to other towns, where they could find work. Their families weren’t usually happy. The people of Appalachia were clannish. They loved their mountain life existence, their extended families, their neighbors. They didn’t want to go to a strange place. He was thinking of going it alone, sending money home, coming home when he could.

He walked before dawn at the foot of the mountains. Thinking. Pondering. It was so beautiful here. The sun was about to rise and he stopped to watch. He had seen this sunrise many times and each time it was more beautiful as it rose over the mountains. No wonder the family didn’t want to leave. People from the outside didn’t understand. They thought them lazy. That they were people who wanted to be on the government dole. That wasn’t it at all. Their culture was different from that on the outside. They knew they wouldn’t fit in out there. Their families and their lifestyle was important to them.

The coal mining jobs had gone away due to the movement toward clean energy. Farming had gone away because tobacco was no longer a cash crop and the corn and other crops had been usurped by the big corporate farms. Because they were geographically isolated, industry did not want to locate there. What were they supposed to do? Abandon the life that they had known for generations?

He had been a specialized machinist in the mines. He could get a job on the outside and had even interviewed with other companies. As the sun rose over the mountains, he knew he had to leave to support his family. He had to send his children to college. There was no place for his wife to work and both their parents depended on him. As the sun rose higher in the sky, he made his decision and started walking home to tell his family. He would not lose them or his connection to this beautiful place. He would drive home on weekends. He would give them the gift of keeping their lives intact.

A Simple Christmas

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The cabin was deep in the heart of Appalachia. She was a city girl and he had worked in the city for years. They weren’t on the same page any more. They had been fighting, constantly bickering. He was desperate to save their marriage.

He surprised her with a trip to the cabin for a simple, country Christmas. She didn’t think she’d like it. Just the woods, a tree, their dog, and them. It was awkward at first, but then they began to talk. They rediscovered what they loved about each other at that cabin in the woods that Christmas.

100 words

Photo Credit Sandra Crook

The Death of a Small Town

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Granny Atkins sat, hidden in the shadows, on the porch of the old house looking at what used to be a busy street in her hometown of Littleton, West Virginia. Drug addiction had killed this town. Littleton wasn’t even a town anymore. It was a death trap. Only a few people her age remained here. The rest had fled or died off. Her generation had worked on the gas wells, but they weren’t pumping much anymore. There was no work.

All that remained were a few families trying to raise some children. They didn’t have any money to move away. The teachers taught drug awareness classes in the only remaining school, but when the heroin came to town, it didn’t matter. The kids used it anyway. They got crazy, burned buildings, and overdosed.

Littleton was a ghost town now. Soon, she would be a ghost too.

Little Dude in Rehab

 

Coal Mining, Appalachia, and Alternative Industries

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I’ve written several articles on the plight of the Appalachian people and the occupation of coal mining always comes up. Many coal miners cast their vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. They will see no long-term benefit in their chosen occupation. It is a fact that Donald Trump dropped a regulation that stopped coal mine owners from dumping waste water into rivers and streams. It is also a fact that since he became President, a deep mine about 60 miles south of Pittsburgh came online. That mine contains metallurgical coal, not thermal coal and 90 percent of the coal mined in the U.S. is thermal coal. What’s more, this mine, the Acosta mine, was planned in September of 2016, long before Trump’s election. It created about 100 jobs.

Since Donald Trump became President, about 1300 coal mining jobs have been created. Even if he drops coal mining regulation after regulation, it will only stem the tide of the loss of coal mining jobs temporarily. The rise of natural gas as an alternative source of energy has seen to that as has automation.

Donald Trump could do something to help coal miners. He could support retraining of miners and give tax breaks to alternative energy manufacturing corporations if they would locate in coal mining country. Former coal miners need stipends in order to feed their families while they learn new occupations. Firms like wind farms and solar companies could be promised tax breaks if they would locate near where the miners live. Those would be positive things that the President could do for the miners instead of making them empty promises. Alternative energy firms need tax breaks to locate in coal country because geographic access is difficult.

There is one thing that coal miners could do to help themselves. They could relocate. I understand their wish to stay in the place where they are, where their family is. My mother’s family came from Appalachia and I spent 27 years teaching Appalachian young people on a university level. Sometimes, you have to make hard choices and one of them is that you do not sit and starve in place. You learn the lessons of the past when there was an out-migration from Appalachia to find jobs.

Unless the world changes in a way we don’t expect, coal mining is a dying industry. If you are a miner or former miner, don’t die with it. There is something better out there for you.

 

Donald Trump, Health Insurance, and A Big, Ugly Mouth

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Fair warning, friends, readers. I’m pulling no punches, holding nothing back in this blog post. You can do the same if you post a comment. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you can’t take the heat, hear the truth, stay out of this particular kitchen. Trump has finally gone too far and, by the time he meets with Vladimir Putin of Russia this week, those among you who still support him, may even agree with me.

I have tried for six months to find something redeeming about Donald Trump. Some reason why he got the majority of the electoral college votes for President of the United States. Some legitimate rationale. I have determined there was no legitimate rationale. Some people bought his rhetoric, bought what he was selling. He can be pretty convincing. It sounds good when someone totally different from a previous administration says they are going to step in and fix everything. It sounded good that he was a businessman and was going to run the government like a business. But, the government is not a business. Running the huge machine that is the federal government is not very much like running Trump’s real estate businesses. For one thing, we just try to balance the budget. We do not seek to necessarily make a profit. Not that Donald has made a profit many times. He’s taken bankruptcy several times. So the profit-seeking motive is still eluding him. His billions (if they are billions) came primarily from investing his father’s money. Do you know the last President that balanced the federal budget and, actually, had a surplus? Bill Clinton.

Trump apparently has an attention-deficit problem. He does not read. He spends his time tweeting and watching Cable News. He was great screaming out all of the things he was going to do at his famous rallies. But, sitting down and reading his briefings and his foreign policy reports is something he does not do. He doesn’t even have anyone in the White House that can talk to him about the contents of the briefings verbally. No one there has any experience. They are either his family or his own appointees who are as inexperienced as he is. Even the Secretary of State, a deeply experienced man, has been reported to be screaming in the White House that he can do nothing because he finishes second to Trump’s son-in-law.

I cannot say this strongly enough. Donald Trump does not know what he is doing. Not with regard to domestic policy nor foreign policy.

Health care insurance. Everyone is upset about health care insurance. Do you know what the problem is? YOU elected him. YOU elected a man who is going to take away Medicaid and, eventually, Medicare and probably some Social Security benefits. You thought that Obamacare was so bad? Well, parts of it are, indeed, terrible and way too expensive. Was that a reason to elect a toddler to serve as President of the United States? If you voted for Trump, YOU caused this horrendous situation in which we find ourselves. Your health care insurance may be going away? Really? TOUGH. You did it. You voted for him. Why didn’t you nominate a Republican candidate for President that was experienced and wasn’t a con artist and grifter who would rather bash the Morning Joe program than help figure out health care? Don’t even mention Hillary Clinton. There were sixteen other Republican candidates to choose from. Obamacare could be fixed if Congress had support by this so-called President to fix it.

Speaking of health care, now we have a situation where Mitch McConnell, the senior senator from MY state (a fact of which I am deeply ashamed) running things with regard to developing a new health care bill. We have millions of people in our state, a poor state, who voted for both Trump and McConnell because they are low-information voters who were taken advantage of. I am not giving them a pass. Educate yourselves, people. Do not vote for the person who just SOUNDS good. Now whatever is passed will likely scale Medicaid way back as well as Medicare benefits. That will decimate Appalachia. Half of my family comes from Appalachia. This saddens me more than I can say. But, the Appalachian people can educate themselves just like anyone else. I am sad, but I do not feel sorry for them. We had enough choices in the primary election that we could have elected someone head and shoulders better than the gross, disgusting man that sits in the White House. Mitch McConnell is one of the senators highest paid by the lobbyists. Do you suppose that might be a reason that he is sucking up to the drug and insurance companies? OPEN YOUR EYES AND FOLLOW THE MONEY. Mitch McConnell is not representing his constituency.

Let’s talk about Trump’s disgusting tweets about Joe and Mika, particularly Mika, of the Morning Joe show on MSNBC. Mika is a consummate professional and the daughter of a brilliant politician and expert in foreign policy. Trump has been tweeting, for two days now, disgusting tweets about Mika’s appearance and sanity and has been doing the same toward Joe. So he is the President? SO WHAT? If I were Mika, I would hire a lawyer and do whatever is necessary to stop him from tweeting one more time anything about me. He is a disgusting pig for doing what he is doing. He is not morally or ethically fit to serve as President of the United States and, instead of being on recess, Congress should be in session determining how to remove him from office due to the fact he has proven himself not “fit to serve.”

Trump’s tweets are nothing but a distraction and he thinks that we, the people, are too stupid to know it. He is trying to distract us from the real issues, the fact that he can’t pass any legislation being one of them.

This is what happens when we let emotion rule our important decisions. People did not like President Obama and I contend part of the reason was because he was half black. I am horrified to have to say that in the United States of America. I’m sure that is not true for everyone, but it is true for some. So many let their emotions rule them when they voted for Trump and this is what has happened. Our democracy is literally at stake and our government is on the verge of authoritarianism. This is not something we want. Imagine Trump as all-powerful leader.

This week, we have to be embarrassed by Trump’s meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who will likely have him for lunch. Just remember. YOU voted for him. Those of us who did not vote for him are horrified at his activities. I want to believe that America, the shining city on the hill (a characterization by Ronald Reagan) does not have a society that has deteriorated to the point that we can accept a classless thug as a President.

 

 

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

I posted this book review some time ago, when the book was newly published, and before many of you had read it. Now, just about everyone who is very interested in the subject has read it. We know that Ron Howard is going to turn it into a movie.  Here is the review again:

Update: This book is going to be made into a movie, directed by Ron Howard.

Before I start this book review, I feel the need to print a bit of a disclaimer. This book is about the area of the country in which I grew up. I grew up on the fringes of Appalachia, but I spent a lot of time with my grandparents who lived in Magoffin Country, KY, just two counties over from Jackson, KY, where the author spent at least part of his childhood. I don’t think I’m biased as I’ve spent most of my life in other places than Appalachia. But, I understand the culture and I am brutally honest about the culture. I have delayed writing this book review because the subject matter of the novel is so close to my heart as I’m sure it is close to the heart of J.D. Vance. With that said, here goes…..

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy