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Joseph E Bird

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hillbillies

a different country road

I have a special needs brother-in-law who has lived in Logan, West Virginia for the past few years. More specifically, Whitman Junction, which runs along the holler formed by Whitman Creek. And yes it’s holler, not hollow. The houses of Whitman Junction – some ramshackle, some very nice brick ranchers –  sit so closely together that you could sit in your kitchen and hear your neighbor’s cat purring next door, and so close to the road that a misjudged first step off the front porch could put you directly in the line of traffic.  It’s what you would call a tight-knit community.

My brother-in-law has been in and out of Logan General Hospital recently, and is now recovering from a serious illness.  Because of all of this, my wife and I have spent a great deal of time in the Logan area over the last few years.  To know about Logan – and southern West Virginia – you need to know about the state in general.

Economically, West Virginia typically ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in just about every category. At one time, though, southern West Virginia was a booming coal mining region. But as mining has declined, so have the fortunes of southern West Virginia. Communities like Logan have been hard hit.

The geography and geology of southern West Virginia, specifically, the coal formed in the mountains eons ago, is what spurred the boom times of yesteryear. Those same mountains also tend to isolate southern West Virginia.  The terrain is rugged. Check out this photo of the main highway leading to Logan. That’s a major cut through hard sandstone.  And the next photo. It took a massive earthwork project just to build another Walmart.

logan highway cut for web
The rugged terrain in Logan makes for expensive highways.

 

fountain place for web
Even the shopping centers are carved out of the rock.

Add all this up and you get people who are different. I know I talk with an accent, but it ain’t nuthin like the accent of southern West Virginia. It’s also the land of camo. As in camouflage hats, camo vests, camo shirts, camo pants. You also see a lot of miners in their work clothes, easily identified by the bright orange reflectors.  Yeah, the people are different. And they seem to have a little bit of a hard edge.

The other day we stopped to get a bite to eat and saw a couple coming out of the fast food restaurant holding hands. They were thin and wiry. He wore a scowl. So did she. Tough love, maybe? I’d be afraid of either one of them.

But maybe I shouldn’t be.

We had driven to Logan that morning, a Saturday, and were listening to This American Life. It was an old episode about a prison production of Hamlet. It was one of the most engaging shows I’ve ever heard on that broadcast. They interviewed convicted criminals who were trying their best to be actors.  One of them acknowledged that his tough guy persona, the very thing that had landed him in prison, was an act. It was who he thought people expected him to be. It was, for him, a cloak of protection.

The people in Logan have had it rough. I’d probably scowl, too, if for no other reason, than to keep the world at bay.

And there are many, many good people in Logan. You can tell by the way the old guys wear their camo ball caps tipped back on their head.  You can tell by the way the young girls in the stores go out of their way to make you feel like a long, lost cousin.  You can tell by the 10-second conversation in the hospital elevator where a stranger tells you about the heartbreak she’s dealing with. Just like people all over the world.

If you lived in Hawaii, you’d probably smile a lot. Perfect weather, beautiful people, laid back attitude.  If you lived in Logan, it would be tougher to smile. And yet they do.  Even the scowling couple probably find contentment when their guard is down. They were holding hands, after all.

Wherever you go in your travels, you’ll find good people.  It might take more of an effort to find them, but they’re there. Look past what’s on the outside, and find the goodness within.

 

 

 

 

Why this hillbilly wears shoes.

I’ve got a few ideas I want to tell you about, but there’s something distracting me right now and I need to get it off my chest. (That’s a weird expression. Remind to look that up.) You may not be able to relate to this, but I live in West Virginia, and most of us don’t wear shoes, what with us being hillbillies and everything. But my office has a dress code. We’re required to wear shoes, except on casual Fridays when pert near anything goes. I just threw in that “pert near” as typical hillbilly lingo to add some local flavor to my story. Most of us don’t really talk like that.

I’ve had my shoes on all day. And my knee’s been hurting from running too much. Either that or just one of them getting old things, so I didn’t run today. So I really have had my shoes on from about 7:12 this morning until now, which, according to the clock Steve Jobs gave me, is 8:13. I’ve been home since about 5:24. I stayed a little late because after everyone left the office, I wanted to try out my new guitar amp. There was a guy who used to work for us, but he got tired of having to wear shoes all the time, so he got himself a job in Florida where all he has to wear are flip-flops, or as we used to say back in the olden hillbilly days, thongs.

Rob – that’s the name of the guy who went to Florida to wear thongs – I mean flip-flops (don’t want to plant any untoward images in your mind) – was a guitar player, too, and he had an electric guitar in the office that he’d play around with on his lunch hour. When he left, I told him he had to leave his guitar. Since I was his boss, he had no choice. So he left me the guitar and a pick. But no amplifier. I went up the street the other day to the Fret N Fiddle. That’s what we call music stores here in hillbilly West Virginia. I asked for the smallest amplifier they had. The young feller (more hillbilly lingo) showed me one for $40. Said it ran on batteries. Well, that wouldn’t work, so he showed me another one for $100. I’m way too cheap to spend that kind of money. Then I saw a little amp on the way out that had vacuum tubes. I should have known better. $500. I blame that on the millennials. Even in West Virginia, we have millennial hipsters.

I ended up getting an amp from an online store for $25. I know what you’re thinking. It couldn’t possibly be any good. But I forgot to get a chord. So today I went back up to Fret N Fiddle. They’re closed on Thursdays. Just some random day to be closed, I reckon (lingo). Up the road I went to Gorby’s Music. I had time since I wasn’t running because of the aforementioned sore knee. Gorby’s has been around forever. I got my high school trumpet there, I think. Or maybe it was Herbert’s Music.

I asked the guy at the counter, who looked like a Gorby, if he ever got any Harold Hayslett cellos in the store. Harold Hayslett is also a hillbilly from nearby (actually, he’s the furthest thing from a hillbilly, but I have a theme going here, so we ask that you bear with us) who makes world class cellos and violins out of gopher wood. Just kidding about the gopher wood. The rest is true. I know this because my sister has a cello that he made when he was starting out. The Gorby fellow says he hasn’t seen one in a while and tells me old Harold is still up on the hill. I told him I thought he died. There was a piece on the radio the other day about Hayslett and I thought they said he died but I was wrong. He’s 99 years old and still going strong. It was John Lambros who died. Lambros was another prominent figure from my sister’s cello days in the area and I guess I got them mixed up. Lambros was 98. There might be a connection between music and living a long life.

So I said my goodbye to Mr. Gorby and went back to the office (still wearing my shoes). My lunch hour was over but I plugged in the guitar to make sure my $25 amp worked. It did. At one point in the afternoon I was tempted to take off my shoes and stick my feet under my desk, but at the time, it just seemed like too much trouble. At 5:02, most everyone had left the office so I plugged in the guitar again. At 5:13, someone hollered from the other side of the building to see if I was still there. In West Virginia, we holler, even when we have telephones. I hollered back and said I was, then he left. I had the whole place to myself, so I cranked it up. Then pushed the little button on the amp that made the distortion sound. All of sudden I sounded like a rock star. It was so cool that I kept playing for another fifteen minutes. Then I went home.

I kept my shoes on even then, because once, a few years ago, I took my shoes off at home and was going around in my socks (it must have been winter). And believe it or not, I stubbed my toe on my shoe. One of those freakishly bad stubs. On my shoe. Ironic, yes? Kind of like throwing your back out when you pick up a pillow, which I’ve done. I thought I broke my toe. The big toe, of course. Ever since then, I always wear some kind of shoe until I go to bed.

Ok. I’ve been writing this little story now for 26 minutes. It’s 8:41. My socks are all bunched up in the toes of my shoes and it’s driving me crazy. I can’t wait for that moment, maybe an hour from now, when I get to set my toes free and they can breathe again and escape their leathery prison. I might write a poem about it. No, I won’t.

I sat down here to make some New Year resolutions and I couldn’t get my mind off my uncomfortable feet. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not.

You didn’t remind me to look up “get it off my chest.”

8:58.

Good night.

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