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!”

Eight Days on Sand Key

Normally, when it’s zero degrees in Iowa and snow covers the ground I want nothing more than to hibernate indoors while admiring the winter wonderland through my frosty windows. However, during the recent cold spell, I received an invitation to spend eight days as a guest on Sand Key, compelling me to brave the frigid temperature on the way to the airport where I flew off to bask in the Florida sunshine.

After arriving at the condo with its security gates and different keys for entrances, exits, pool area and changing rooms, I was almost afraid to venture out for fear of not getting back in. My brother and sister-in-law had been granted vacation use of the condo by an employer and were allowed to have visitors so my older brother’s widow was also with them. Although the condo, beautiful and furnished tastefully, was evaluated at almost two million dollars, I was not overawed. It was simply more elegant living quarters than I was accustomed to.

I slept well in the king size bed although I missed Winston’s warm little body against my back and hoped he was behaving for my daughter. This was the first time I’d been away from him overnight in two and a half years, also the first time I had seen my relatives since that time. We had talked often on the phone though and I looked forward to reminiscing about the past.

Although we made small talk, shared meals and loaded the dishwasher together, and on the second day my widowed sister-in-law and I took the trolley to Clearwater to shop for things to take home from Florida, three days went by before we spoke of Kentucky.

It’s strange, but I learned for the first time that my brother, who was twelve when I was eight, did not remember that he was the one who woke me to tell me that morning that Daddy had died during the early morning hours. Yet that moment stands out in my mind as clearly as if it was yesterday.

In another instance my widowed sister-in-law said to me “Who would ever have thought it would be you, little Amanda Nell, who would do the family book. Who would have thought it!”

I have always had trouble interpreting the things people say, but what I learned from my brother and what my sister-in-law said seemed connected somehow. All those years ago my brother had left the room not knowing my body had turned to stone. I remember lying rigid in the bed with no feeling at all and yet I don’t remember getting up. Sometime later I stood in the doorway to the front room in our Appalachian home staring at my father’s body lying in the casket while relatives and neighbors sat in chairs around the room staring at me. I once said to my mother “It was really hard on me when Daddy died.”

“It was hard on all of us,” she said.

As I caught the plane home I had my brother and his wife drop me off early at the airport because I was halfway through an interesting novel and also because I knew the day was finally warm enough for them to play golf. We’d had a few cold, for Florida, blustery days.

But as I sat in the Tampa Airport, I remembered those days so long ago when my brother had shared such terrible news, news he doesn’t remember telling me. I thought of my sister-in-law saying “Who would ever have thought it” that I would be the one to do the family book.  But, I thought to myself, I had to.  Because nobody else did. And it was important to leave a written record for those who wanted to know what our small world was like during that place and time. 

Back in Cedar Rapids my daughter picked me up at the airport and I hugged her close, rejoicing to be back in this cozy place I’ve created for myself. When I awoke this morning the temperature was  nine below, but inside I felt a warm glow the frigid weather will never touch. 

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.

Illegal Aliens: Poachers in the Smokehouse

As an Appalachian hillbilly who left my mountain home at a young age due to economic reasons, I can’t help but feel a kinship with the illegal aliens. However, I broke no laws when I entered the new world of opportunity, as the wealth of America was part of my heritage, and I have always realized how lucky I was. I did rub shoulders with prejudice in the big city of Detroit but it was nothing compared to the racial prejudice of those days. In an office of seventeen to twenty girls only one was black and had a friend across the hall that she went to lunch with. One day, she and her friend, wanting to eat at a popular restaurant, asked a few of us to go sit with them until they were served so they wouldn’t be turned away, and we did.  This was in 1956.

Having grown up with Gone with the Wind, the girls in the office thought of me as a southern belle; to them I was interesting because I was different. They were young, sweet and innocent, and I wouldn’t have traded that time and place for the most elite finishing school.

Job opportunities in the mountains were almost non-existent, the few available jobs already taken. If I wanted to get ahead I had to migrate and fortunately I had a place to go. But what if I’d lived in Mexico and work for wages was scarce? Would it be acceptable for me to break the laws of the neighboring country by entering it illegally? Even though it was in order to find work? Or do I show complete disrespect for my neighbor’s rights by circumventing their laws? And who should suffer the consequences?

My grandfather was a justice of the peace and one of his jobs was busting up moonshine stills. The moonshiners felt no guilt for making hard liquor; the only reason they hid was to keep from getting arrested and having their stills busted up. The reason they had stills in the first place was to make a living (and naturally they sampled the brew). To the mountaineer the reasons for the law were that the licensed liquor companies didn’t want the competition and the government wanted the tax revenue. Neither of which the moonshiners felt to be as important as a bump on a log.

But the law was the law, and enforcing it was my grandfather’s job. According to my older brother (excerpted from my book) “Grandfather would methodically dismantle the still–“cut the still”–with an ax and carry the empty copper pot on his back to his home, where he stored them in a corner of his garden, like a modern day auto junk yard. For an owner to try to reclaim his still would, of course, be to ask for a term in jail. From those stills Grandfather made many a copper bowl for use in making apple butter, which he gave to various family members and friends.”

Now if Grandfather had the sentiments of the bleeding hearts of today, he would’ve given those copper bowls back to the truants and told Grandmother to call on their wives and give them her best recipe for apple butter.

We know, of course, that illegal immigration was also encouraged and abetted by employers who wanted cheap labor, and this compounded the problem. Each side felt justified by its own need, in breaking the law or helping to circumvent its enforcement. Just as the moonshiner felt his need was a valid excuse for breaking the law and was abetted in this by his customers. Fortunately, Grandfather and other law enforcers, including the famous revenuers, did their jobs and moonshiners did not take over the country, or, God forbid, nobody would ever have heard of Kentucky bourbon.

I was born an American. My ancestors fought and died for this country and that is my heritage. Monetary wealth was not passed down to me but something more precious was. Along with the privileges of being an American comes the responsibilities, to protect and defend that which has been entrusted to our care. Instead, we have mice nibbling on our aged cheese and poachers in the smokehouse. The time has come for the “justices of the peace” to enforce the laws of this country.

(For any who don’t know, the smokehouse was where we kept our slaughtered, smoked and cured meats, a favorite place to raid, by both sides, during the Civil War)