I am a West Virginian. My father’s people came from France by way of Scotland to the area around Pinch up the Elk River to settle on a 900 acre tract of land bequeathed to them by the King of England in 1625. My mother’s grandmother was from the Barker and Lewis families with links to the Melungeon clan who claim to be descendants of the Portuguese who chose to stayed behind when the others left to go home. Original explorers of the Appalachian Mountains in the 1500s and intermarried with the Cherokee to form their own tribe. Her father’s people, the Nash family, emigrated from Wales during the 19th Century influx of “Scotch/Irish” who came to work the mines. My father’s grandfather was a minister in the Church of Christ who ran for and won a seat in the state legislature only to be cheated out of it by the mine owners who held up the election results in court until he finally served a single day and made a single speech. I'm still looking for a copy of that speech. n 1928 my real grandfather changed his name, stole a car and chiseled off the serial number and fled West Virginia. He was arrested in Roswell, New Mexico...the family myth is that he was headed to the Mothership and wanted to stock up on whores and booze for the long trip...and ended up in a federal prison in Washington state. he used to spend a lot of easy time at the Warden's House where he was alone with the Big Dicks trophey wife why he was out there trying to keep the boys in line and not paying much attention to what's under his nose. Story goes when he'd served his time it was the Warden's Wife who attended his departure with tears in her eyes. The only grandfather I ever knew, my grandmother’s second husband, fought with the miners at Blair Mountain and died of black lung when I was still a boy.
My father was a minister in the Church of Christ. He was a good and honest man, much better one on one over the inevitable chicken dinner on Sunday afternoon or at the bedside of the sick and dying than he was in the pulpit. He preached to the churches in West Virginia that really couldn’t afford a minister. He prided himself for not taking any money directly choosing to live on the small stipend his parishioners could afford. He never made more than nine thousand dollars in any year of his long career He died from injuries sustained in a car wreck while on his way to preach.
My mother was a raven haired beauty scarred by a father who abandoned her and a truncated childhood made endurable only by a vibrant imagination and an unschooled talent for language and life. She took her training and became a Licensed Practical Nurse back in the Fifties and worked till she broke her back in a fall in the late Seventies. She moved from a holler in Boone County to subsidized housing in Kanawha City after my father’s death where she currently resides.
I have one brother who chose to continue the family business of preaching and now serves a church in Naples, Florida. He’s the white sheep of the family.
To say I’m proud of my heritage is a cliché I can’t bring myself to use. I have no reason to be proud of what others did before me. I hope, in what world there may be beyond the grave, my ancestors will be proud to call me one of their own. And I hope, when I am gone to be with them, my children will find reason to be proud of me.
I say all this to establish my credentials as a bona fide, born and bred West Virginian. I left for Nashville, Tennessee in 1968 and, after living in Tennessee, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia, I returned to the hills in 1989. Those years in the flatlands don’t negate my hillbilly status, but rather confirm it. The best of us go away and, those of us who can’t cut it in the real world, find our way back to the only home we know.
These poems are about West Virginia. The West Virginia I grew up in then spent years running from. The West Virginia I returned to when I found myself looking up over the flat roof of a Virginia shopping mall and seeing nothing but blue sky and no comforting green hills to bracket my horizon and realized what I once thought of as a prison’s walls were really the balustrade of a fortress strong and secure.
This is my West Virginia. These poems talk about the streets and alleys of Charleston and the degrading poverty of Chesapeake and the tangible darkness of a Boone County night and the loneliness of those who have lifted the rock and looked under and can’t forget what they’ve seen. When I write about the hills they don’t have “...summits bathed in glory like the Prince Emanuel’s land.” I don’t write bits of folksy wisdom and nostalgia about growing up in the holler with a tight knit family clan filled with god-fearin’, Bible-believing gun-toting men and women who could whip up supper for a mess of kinfolk from commodity cans of beef and home grown vegetables then come out on the porch to play a tune on the dulcimer as the sun dips behind the hills and the kids catch fireflies in the twilight.
Don’t get me wrong, I caught my share of fireflies growing up. I’m not saying that image wasn’t partially true. I’m just saying it never was the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I’m saying that Edenic time is as gone as going will get you gone. All that’s left is a bunch of craft show sellers who moved here from New York in the Sixties and wannabee rednecks who take their lifestyle cues and politics from the boardrooms in the skyscrapers of Nashville.
We can’t afford to let nostalgia numb us to the needs and problems of real people struggling to overcome the inherited evils of poverty and joblessness, of alcohol and drugs, of pandemic child abuse and domestic violence and of the scathing bigotry and ignorance this pastoral image served to mask.
We need to face our past with honesty and our present with a firm determination to end these evils in our generation and not pass them down to the next.
"Take Care of Your Own Shit."
It stops here.
With this generation...
This book is for all the children I have lost.