Andy Adams – Kentucky Coal


The above video of an interview with my brother Andy Adams of Hazard, Kentucky in Appalachia took place twenty-seven years ago when he was fifty years old, and had achieved the American Dream.

His photo on the cover of my family book Stories of a Kentucky Mountain Family was taken when he was just sixteen, with our youngest brother Hale, who was six. When our dad died, leaving eight children, Andy quit school and went to work in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky to support his mother and siblings.

Later, after being injured at the mines during a dynamite blast, he forged a birth certificate to prove he was eighteen and drove semi-trailers across the country. He also worked in the factories in Detroit, and when he came home he paid our debt at the general store.

Andy was my hero. Hale and I, the two youngest, often watched for him to come home. Memories still linger in my mind of him coming up the path on crutches after the blast at the mines, smiling at us through his pain as we waited on the front porch, and later, watching him swing down from the giant cab of a truck as he came home to check on us.

In the video he tells you himself that he achieved the American Dream, a man who only finished the eighth grade and was self-educated. He was also self-directed, with a can-do, positive attitude towards life and work that he passed along to all of us.

When he passed away on March 14 2001, I was with him. A few hours before, he had pointed over my shoulders and said “Your brothers.” I turned automatically towards the wall and said “Where?” He had a disappointed look on his face, realizing I hadn’t seen them. It was the only time I remember disappointing him. But I knew at that moment that the three brothers who had already passed on were waiting to greet him.

Andy was a hero for our times. A young man of sixteen who became a substitute father to his siblings. He set an example for all of us. I hope he knows how much he was loved.

From the Raped Mountains of Appalachia:Perspective on the Bailout

Shame on your greed, shame on your wicked schemes, I’ll say this, I don’t give a damn about your dreams      Bob Dylan, Thunder on the Mountain

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand, look into my heart and you will understand.

You brought me here, now you’re trying to run me away, the writing on the wall, come read it, come see what it say.

Thunder on the Mountain heavy as can be, mean old twister bearing down on me.

All the ladies in Washington scrambling to get out of town, looks like something bad gonna happen, better roll your airplane down.

The hammer’s on the table, the pitchfork’s on the shelf, for the love of God you ought to take pity on yourself. 

Amen

Appalachian Rhapsody–God’s Comic Intervention

Out of the void of darkness came the Big Boom and another mountaintop in Appalachia tumbled down the mountainside, buried a graveyard, filled up a stream and killed a fish. The fish asked why but nobody answered. A small boy heard and looked up at the old man sitting on a cloud, coughing and waving away the coal dust. “Gee whiz, God,” said the boy, “Whatcha letting them do that for?”

And God laughed. “T’ain’t funny,” said the boy.

“Oh, yes it is,” said God, slapping his knee, almost choking on his laughter, “you’ll see.”

The boy grew up and became a man. He went to Detroit to work in the car factory. He sent money home to his maw to help care for the other youngins, and one of them even became a mining engineer and told the mountaintop removers where to set the charges. More Big Booms, more mountaintops crashing down into the valleys. Huge machines now did the work requiring fewer and fewer workers. While the valleys filled up with all this debris more and more people left the wrecked mountains and moved to the cities.

There they married people whose ancestors had left the mountains over the past two hundred years, generations that had mingled and merged with others throughout these United States. Whose genes had  grown weaker and weaker the further they had strayed from their source. Weak brains had become rampant in the populace, and it was the ones with weak brains who had plundered Mother Earth and destroyed the mountains. Others of the weak brain had stood by and watched the plight of the mountaineers with disinterest, even prejudice.

But with the new infusion of the blood of the mountain people who were forced to move to the cities, a new race was born. They came to be called the Neomelungeons.

“So you see,” said God to the boy who had become a man and was now a very old man. “By letting the weak-minded destroy the mountains, I brought forth a new race. The blood of your ancestors was kept sacrosanct behind your mountain walls, where they retired after your Revolution. In their blood lives on the history of America, forgotten by many whose blood has been diluted this past two hundred years. The mountain blood is that of the mixed races of all people, come together for a divine purpose: to help mankind evolve to the next stage of your journey on your return to the One True Reality. Your place of origin at my side.”

The old man said: “Well, pon my soul and honor!”

The View From the Crypt

Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines, it’s dark as a dungeon way down in the mines – Miner’s song

I’m trying to find my sense of humor. I seem to lose it this time of year but I know it’s around here someplace, probably in the passage in my brain known as Places You don’t Want to Revisit. The last time I went there I was looking for a bit of macabre humor to support my latest thesis on What’s Wrong with the World in Five Hundred Words or Less.

Well, if that’s where it is, no wonder I lost it! That place was like a dungeon, like dark shafts in a coal mine. It was the pits. An utter nightmare that sent me running so fast I must’ve left my sense of humor biting the black coal dust behind me. But I have to go back in; I must find it. I know God does not expect me to live the rest of my life without my sense of humor. He gave it to me to help me through the travails of this world; without it I will flounder in a mass of black despair.

As I go in, I find the passage to the Places You don’t Want to Revisit and turn onto the Black Humor Trail. Since I am armed with resolve to find my sense of humor, I march forward firmly into the dark, into the place from which things have on occasion sneaked into my conscious awareness, providing me with chilling humor of the worst kind. Alongside the trail I spy an instance of macabre humor and feel compelled to stop. Since everything plays its part in the order of the Universe, I assume I am meant to pass this story along.

It is a thing that leaked out many years ago from the crypt of a widow I will call Mrs. Wallace, who lived near us in our old neighborhood. This was in the days of Beige and Butte Knits and Simplicity and the widow Wallace walked with an erect carriage in her proud clothes. I knew from another neighbor that Mrs. Wallace had gone to school with another old lady who lived across the street from her, a little old lady in a print housedress. But Mrs. Wallace had nothing to do with her former classmate because, she said, the woman had “no class”, referring to the print housedress and the gray, frizz-permed hair, I presume. Mrs. Wallace also had a sister who lived in town whom she never saw for the same reason. Her sister had “no class”, she said.

When Mrs. Wallace died I missed her funeral but another neighbor came over for coffee after I got off work to tell me about her view of the widow in her open casket. “I couldn’t believe she had that dress in her closet!” my neighbor said. She described the dress Mrs. Wallace was buried in as a print dress with huge red roses all over it. I looked at my neighbor for a moment, open mouthed. “She didn’t have it in her closet” I exclaimed. “Her sister bought her a new dress to bury her in.” Now, this might not strike some people as funny at all, but I found it so hilarious I couldn’t stop laughing.

That’s what I mean by my macabre sense of humor, you see.  Imagining this poor little old lady with “no class”, tears of grief running down her withered cheeks as she bought the pretty new dress to bury her sister in, and Mrs. Wallace in the open casket for all the world to see, trying to roll over so nobody would recognize her. Here she had all those classy clothes in her wardrobe and her sister had probably given them to Goodwill! I’m sure when Mrs. Wallace reached the pearly gates she apologized and explained to St. Peter about the dress, but I wonder what she thought of the robe. Or, for that matter, if St. Peter let her in.

The thing is–even though I’ve recovered my lost sense of humor, I find I am unable to wash away the black coal dust. My mind has become tainted with it.  It clings like bats to the walls of a dungeon.

God, the American Dream and the Select Few

It’s not enough that the rich have co-opted the American Dream. Now they are trying to co-opt God. Forget all that stuff about the poor inheriting the earth, it being easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than to get into Heaven, or that Christ tossed the usurers out of the temple–the rich are not worried.

Because they don’t believe it. They believe God is on their side. After all, He made them rich, didn’t he? And He lets the poor live in poverty, doesn’t he? Which obviously means He finds the poor undeserving. Old Rockefeller said “God gave me my money!” and it is more obvious than ever before that this is what the rich believe.

Until recently I had not realized how pervasive the idea of the deserving rich is in our society. I mean, I knew money bestowed power, but I had no idea it also created and supported such a belief system. For the very rich, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the after-tax income of the top one percent rose 228 percent from 1979 through 2005, while the earnings of men in their thirties, based on a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts, have remained flat over the past four decades. Improvement in family incomes during that time has been mostly due to the increase of wives and mothers in the work force.

I guess you could blame my naivete on my birth as a member of the undeserving poor. I was born into coal, on the excavating side. My father was a coal miner for twenty-five years before he pursued the American Dream by getting out of coal to become a barber, upward mobility to much cleaner and less dangerous work. Meanwhile, families who had never seen a coal mine lived wealthy lives provided by royalties from coal while romping beneath the golden Sun on the French Riviera.

This belief system of the rich that God gave them their money works as well as it does because it is supported by other belief systems that are working in tandem. One, built around the theme of entitlement, inclines the believer to acept the rich’s approbation of themselves as deserving of their immense wealth because they think that with time and chance, they too can belong to the select few. Although the second group hasn’t yet arrived at the very top, they, like the rich, feel entitled to the best of everything. Based on what? Their looks, talent, intelligence, education? Culture? Their sparkling personality?

When my father died, my family was thrown into poverty. Despite how hard my older siblings worked to keep us together–warm, fed and clothed, I remember one day at school having nothing to eat for lunch and I hid from the other children until lunchtime was over so they wouldn’t know. I was ashamed of being hungry.

Except for a small group who provide much ammunition to the welfare critics, most of the poor do not feel entitled to anything, and even blame themselves for not doing better than they are. After all, this is America, land of opportunity and the American Dream. Or was. But even though the Dream has died for many, God cannot be co-opted. He lives within the heart of His people. His love shines on us all.

The Passion of Appalachia

“Life is passion and action and each man (woman) must take part in the passion and action of his (her) own times at peril of being judged not to have lived.”   Oliver Wendell Holmes

Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout The Good Old Days) by the Judds twanged the strings of my heart in 1987. As it did for many, winning the Grammy award for Best Country Song and Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocal.

Sometimes it feels like the world’s gone crazy still echoes in my mind. Today, it seems truer than ever. We continue to lose faith in our leaders, question our moral beliefs, and, in spite of the progress made in Civil Rights, our society is still segregated between black and white, between rich and poor, and, unfortunately, also between the ideal of America and the reality.

Perhaps it’s time we rediscovered the passion of Appalachia.  Passion brought into the mountains by our ancestors, those early pioneers who had so recently fought and won the American Revolution. My own family in the Kentucky Mountains can list the names and service of fifteen of these passionate souls who put their blood and guts into the founding of America.

For their descendants to “grow up with this stigmatized image of the place where they live” (Rudy Abramson, a former journalist and coeditor of the recently released Encyclopedia of Appalachia, reviewed by Amy Green and Arian Campo-Flores in the April 17th copy of Newsweek) is not just a loss to the Appalachian people, but also to the nation.  Green and Campo-Flores close their review with “Perhaps with the help of this book, that won’t be true for long.” 

Unlike the song, I don’t want to go back to the “good old days.” They weren’t so good; back-breaking labor, women and children dying in childbirth, abject poverty (of course poverty is still with us, especially in the inner cities and up the hollers).

Yet “the good old days” was also a time when the line between right and wrong didn’t seem so hazy.  As a people Appalachians still uphold the values of our Revolutionary ancestors: love of God, love of country and love of family. When my dad died in 1947 leaving eight children, the older siblings took on the responsibility for the younger ones and finished rearing us (one of them, only sixteen years old, went to work in the coal mines). They not only provided us with food and shelter but also taught us to be self-reliant, encouraging us younger children to find and create our own place in a changing world.

Grandpa, everything is changing fast. We call it progress, but I just don’t know.  When the country went soaring off into the future, into the three-piece suits and skyscrapers, the industrial and then the technological revolutions, a beautiful new world came into being, with a higher standard of living than the world had ever known. We kicked the dust of early America from our heels and it no longer mattered where we came from, but only where we were going. 

Except perhaps in Appalachia, where the past, and the passion, from those early times, still lives on.