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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Some Appalachian Wisdom About Health Care

When I was growing up on Right Beaver Creek in Knott County Kentucky, there were two relatively easy options for my parents when simple childhood illnesses were involved.  There were two doctors in private practice a few miles away in Floyd County just down Beaver Creek.  One of those doctors was Mark Dempsey, M.D. who practiced until he was nearly ninety and died in the late 1960's in my teenage years.  Most children hated to go to see him but I am sure his medicine was just as effective and safe as that being practiced by anyone else in the area at the time.  But his manner was brusque and abrupt.  He was still using reusable syringes and needles which he sterilized in an autoclave. We children often accused him of "not sharpening his needles".  His wife was his assistant although I have never been told that she was a nurse.  He had begun his practice in Floyd County as a company doctor for the Elkhorn Coal Company after moving from his native Logan County West Virginia, and was a cousin of the prize fighter, Jack Dempsey, although he never made any effort to gain advantages from the relationship.  He was in all ways a native Appalachian male who had grown up relatively poor and done well based on hard work.  His office was in an old building between the railroad and creek in Garrett, KY, a typical Eastern Kentucky coal mine town. His office also served as his home and after his death it lived a second life as a produce market.  The office area was cluttered, cramped, and loaded from wall to wall, corner to corner, and floor to ceiling with pill bottles, medical instruments, and all the tools of a country doctor's trade along with some odds and ends of his every day life. 

Dr. Mark Dempsey at work.  Photo by The Floyd News

Recently, Dr. Dempsey crossed my mind and I did a Google Search of his name and found a most interesting and timely newspaper article about him from about 1964 shortly before his death.  I was astounded at what I learned about the old country doctor I had never wanted to visit when I was a sick child.  After reading the article, originally published in a now defunct newspaper called The Floyd News, I found myself wishing I had been smart enough to learn at his feet while he was alive and working.  The article listed a few examples of the medical, social, and political philosophies of Dr. Dempsey which are just as worthwhile and necessary today as they were in the late 1960's when he was originally interviewed. The most timely and pertinent of the remarks from Dr. Dempsey was the following:

1) "All people should have free health care." This remark should be ringing from the mouths of every  health care provider and politician in our country today at this time when the TRAITOR Donald Trump is attempting to destroy the best health care coverage plan ever concocted in an industrialized nation.  Dr. Dempsey's name should be lauded in every public health care forum in Appalachia and the entire country today. Dr. Mark Dempsey should become one of the faces of the ongoing battle to save American health care for all future generations.  The Dempsey newspaper article was written when future American President Barack Obama was about five years old and I am certain that it contained nothing that Dr. Mark Dempsey had not been telling his patients, friends, and professional associates for forty years before that date. The words "all people should have free health care" are just as relevant today as they were when Dr. Mark Dempsey was born on the banks of the Guyandotte River more than a hundred years ago.

 2) "Every man, regardless of who he is, should be trained to do skilled work." In light of the refusals by the Right Wing Radical Repugnican Party to support free associate degrees for all citizens, as espoused by Hillary Clinton, this idea should also be a key plank in the basic political platform of the country.  Nearly every other so-called civilized country in the world has advanced ahead of the United States in the percentages of high school graduates, college graduates, and recipients of advanced degrees of all kinds.  We are rapidly deteriorating into a Third World Country educationally and the TRAITOR Donald Trump has placed a billionaire idiot whose family constructed the largest pyramid scheme in the history of the country, in charge of the US Department of Education. This brief piece of wisdom from Dr. Mark Dempsey could go a long way to rescuing America from our slow slide into international mediocrity.  If every American citizen with sufficient intelligence to pass the educational or training program of their desires could be guaranteed a vocational or college degree, we would soon be a stronger, better country with a vastly improved national gross product, national domestic product, higher median income, a larger and stronger national tax base, lower unemployment rates, and a much solider place in international competitions of productivity.  Dr. Mark Dempsey had grown up in Logan County West Virginia as the coal boom was transforming Appalachia and the Logan County Mine Wars, the Battle Of Blair Mountain, and the murder of dozens of union members, union organizers, and suspected union sympathizers were being carried out on the orders of the murderous sheriff Don Chafin and the Logan County Coal operators.  Dr. Dempsey had seen just how cheaply American corporations in the early twentieth century valued their employees.  During his childhood in Logan County, Dr. Mark Dempsey was exposed to a world in which a bank mule was considered more valuable than a man.  Logan County coal operators were notorious for saying that "you have to buy a mule but you can always hire another man".  Living in this environment, as a child with enough intelligence to complete medical school, there can be little doubt that Dr. Mark Dempsey realized many truths about the strained relationship between industry and labor and came to believe as he did that men should be trained to work to the best of their ability. 

3) "He is an avowed enemy of totalitarianism of communism, Hitlerism or any enforced subjugation of individual rights-but he can point out inequalities existing  in our system of government which might be corrected, he has said  through courageous and  honest  leadership"  Even though Dr. Mark Dempsey gave the Floyd News that interview more than fifty years ago, these words of his ring just as true today as they did then.  TRAITOR Trump, in subjugation to and cooperation with Vladimir Putin, has placed the United States in the greatest peril it has ever faced.  TRAITOR Trump seeks to inflict "subjugation of individual rights" on nearly every citizen of the country by virtue of destroying every public service program and agency instituted over the last seventy years. TRAITOR Trump has illegally and unconstitutionally authorized the arrest of the free press on several occasions in his ongoing effort to destroy the free press which exposes his crimes.  TRAITOR Trump has spoken out against having numerous services available to citizens such as National Public Radio and Public Television, the National Endowment For The Arts, the National Endowment For The Humanities, all of which lead to a better educated, more intelligent, more literate, and more verbal populace.  Dr. Mark Dempsey was a prescient and clairvoyant man in the late 1960's. Every citizen of America should be reading, defending, repeating, and supporting his ideas today all across Appalachia and America.  Every citizen should be standing up, in honor of Dr. Mark Dempsey, to defend the sacred values, Constitution, and Bill Of Rights of the United States.

Later in the article from the Floyd News, Dr. Dempsey and the writer, Qaentin Allen, wrap up much of the doctor's  belief structure in the following quote:
"When you meet [him] the man  is ready to talk of the people's  need to. become whole and become as citizens of this country. The doctor fears that his views may be misinterpreted. He is an avowed enemy of totalitarianism of communism, Hitlerism or any enforced subjugation of individual rights-but he can point out inequalities existing  in our system of government which might be corrected, he has said  through courageous and  honest  leadership. All classes of people regardless of who they are, should be trained to do skilled work and be disease free. Our government seems to to take the attitude that, If you can't do something for yourself then it won't be done. One man can't shoot a rocket to the moon. It takes the experts, the specialists. It takes the collective effort on the part of the people through the government.
One person can't give an education to eliminate the illiteracy and the disease of our people. Only the government and the scientists and the experts can do this."
"I have practiced medicine in more rich and poor homes than any other doctor in Eastern Kentucky. I have practiced among the Negro, the Jew, the Italian, the Indian. They are all the same. The Negroes treated me better than anyone has ever treated me. The people in the lower economic class are being neglected. "The experts should treat them. They should be free of disease, should have free medical service as they do in Great Britain or Russia."
"No. I am not a Communist." But how do we hope to compete with Russia? How do we compete with Russia when we have much ignorance and illiteracy? You find ignorance worse in the city than you do in the country."
Dr. Mark Dempsey Photo By Floyd News

That quotation about "courageous leadership" is just as relevant today as any word that Dr. Mark Dempsey ever spoke in his life of nearly a hundred years in the coal fields of Appalachia.  A lack of courageous leadership in most of the elected offices in this country has allowed a Russian TRAITOR and idiot to assume illegal control of the White House with the assistance of Vladimir Putin.  Dr. Mark Dempsey must be spinning in his grave today if he is cognizant of the political terrorism which is being forced on the American citizenry, the free press, the education system, the social welfare system, and environmental protections. The greatest public health insurance system ever devised in an industrialized nation is under attack from TRAITORS, criminals, corporations, and idiots in order to save billions of dollars for American corporations.  Every voter in America should be speaking up, speaking out, and defending the real American values which are being destroyed every time a baby is born dead because of lack of prenatal care, every time a bright student drops out of school because of a lack of funding, every time an elderly person fails to seek treatment because they are afraid of not having enough money, every time another environmental disaster takes place without repercussions, and every time a TRAITOR illegally occupies the White House and pretends to be qualified to do the job of the President Of The United States because the President Of Russia stole an American election.

Dr. Mark Dempsey with a child


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

"Still Life With Plums" by Marie Manilla--Book Review

Manilla, Marie 2010 Still Life With Plums (Morgantown, WV, Vandalia Press)

I just took a long, quiet drive across the West Virginia I have always loved courtesy of Marie Manilla, one of the Mountain State's finest writers.  This collection of short stories is set primarily in West Virginia with a bit of Texas thrown in for good measure.  But the author's primary setting, source of knowledge and folkways, and the home place of her heart is West Virginia, the West Virginia that is found in the lyrics to "The Green Rolling Hills Of West Virginia". 

"The green rolling hills of West Virginia
Are the nearest thing to heaven that I know
Though the times are sad and drear
And I cannot linger here
They'll keep me and never let me go."

That line "though the times are sad and drear and I cannot linger here they'll keep me and never let me go" personifies this book in many ways.  Several of the stories are set among times, places, families, and individuals who are "sad and drear".  But nearly every character in the book has learned the truth that West Virginia will "keep me and never let me go".  They have found the sources of both their pain and their pleasure in that sweet, dark, heart warming, shimmering green, and dreary land between the Ohio River and the headwaters of the Potomac.  Thanks to Ms. Manilla, these characters are generally able to resolve that pain and relish the pleasures of life.  As I read this book, I was reminded of the song writing of Dolly Parton in such songs as "Mountain Angel" and "These Old Bones". Marie Manilla has that same ability to reach into the soul of a flawed character who is generally not responsible for her flaws but found them at the hands of others.  

"Still Life With Plums" is a book to be read slowly, thoughtfully, and deeply.  These characters are real people that you and I have both known and often loved with a love that was deepened and strengthened by many shared mornings fueled on water gravy and a thin hoe cake.  These characters have a few too many patches on their britches and the cold winter winds blowing down the Guyandotte or the Gauley have cut right through their pea coats on the way to the mine, factory, or company store.  Marie Manilla understands West Virginia and her people as only one of their own can comprehend.  She creates characters out of the whole cloth of a life lived in that land built from secession, independence, and hardship.  These characters find connections, assistance, and subsistence among others like themselves, strong despite having been bowed, compassionate in addition to being tough, loving despite having been discarded, and proud Mountaineers in the face of all that history of having been discriminated against.  They are my people.  They are your people.  They are the people of Cabell, Wayne, and Summers Counties.  They are the people of the industrial and chemical river and the people of the log woods and coal fields.  They are people you should meet and come to know.  They are people you should take a long, quiet ride with across the green rolling hills of that beautiful, blessed paradise we call our mountain home. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

"Fellow Travelers" A New Use For An Old Term

During the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950's whereby the lives of thousands of innocent Americans were destroyed, the term "fellow traveler" was a widely used term in attacks on these people including Hollywood writers, main stream authors, union organizers, and simple working class Americans who may or may not have known someone who had some connection to a cause which was under attack by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and his right wing radical minions. defines "fellow traveler" as 
"One who supports the aims or philosophies of a political group without joining it. A “fellow traveler” is usually one who sympathizes with communist doctrines but is not a member of the Communist Party. The term was used disparagingly in the 1950s to describe people accused of being communists."
During those highly destructive and UN-American senate hearings under the self-centered, publicity seeking, and uncaring direction of Joseph McCarthy, "fellow traveler" was used as a weapon to destroy the lives and careers of anyone the senator might believe he could paint as an enemy of America.  The phrase was used like a club, gun, or truncheon to beat these victims of the senator over the head with words until their lives were worth next to nothing.  During my life, I have actually met and learned from at least four people who suffered various damaging, degrading, and debilitating problems because for one reason or another they came into Joe McCarthy's cross hairs. McCarthy and his fellow Right Wing hooligans used the term "fellow traveler" freely, loosely, and indiscriminately to damage the reputations of their victims.  Over the intervening years since Joe McCarthy's death, the term has been revived and reinvigorated by dozens of other people of the same ilk as McCarthy.  I believe now is the appropriate time for people on the other side of the human rights fight to revive and reinvigorate the term in the cause of individual freedoms and democracy.

Every since late in 2016, we have seen repeated evidence that the TRAITOR Donald Trump and his minions have been consorting with Vladimir Putin and Russian hackers who worked to seriously impair, devalue, and destroy the democratic electoral process in America.  Because the TRAITOR Donald Trump, Paul Manafort, Mike Flynn, Steve Bannon, Carter Page have had numerous illegal and treasonous connection to Russian diplomats and known spies, the integrity of the American election was nullified and the White House was seized and illegally occupied by a TRAITOR and his gang of criminals.  At no other time in history, has America suffered from such an open, unrepentant plan to consort with enemies of the country in order to commit treason for self interest.  Just today, a news story appeared on the major agencies stating that the TRAITOR Donald Trump has conversed with Vladimir Putin by telephone about world issues.   It appears highly likely that the TRAITOR Donald Trump cannot take any sort of action without consulting and, perhaps, seeking permission from Vladimir Putin.  What better justification could there be for use of the term "fellow traveler"?

Just two days ago, the TRAITOR Donald Trump referred to Kim Jung Un, one of the world's worst dictators, as a "smart cookie".  Once again, the TRAITOR Trump has shown his willingness to consort with the worst criminals in the world.  What better justification can there be for the use of the term "fellow traveler"?  

Additionally and even worse, since the American election in 2016, more than a dozen key figures in the Russian espionage system have died in a variety of circumstances ranging from outright murder by gunfire to suspicious "suicides" and nearly all of these dead Russians have had ties to the TRAITOR Donald Trump.  We have even seen at least one key figure in senate hearings about the connections between the TRAITOR Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin tell the US Senate to follow the dead Russians in order to learn the truth about the election hacking and the outcome of the 2016 American election.  What better reason could there be for using the term "fellow  traveler"?

Even before the American election in 2016, the TRAITOR Trump spoke positively of Russia, Iran, and Syria all simultaneously claiming they were "killing ISIS".   What better reason could there be for using the term "fellow traveler"? 

I hereby propose that all members of the American political resistance movement begin to use the term "fellow traveler" to describe the TRAITOR Donald Trump and all his minions who continue to unashamedly consort with Vladimir Putin, Kim Jung Un, and the enemies of the United States.  There is no more accurate word to describe their collusion with the greatest dictators, war criminals, and terrorists than "fellow traveler"!  It is time to call these American traitors exactly what they are, "fellow travelers"! 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Some Reflections On One Hundred Published Posts

When I began this blog on April 15, 2011, I had some clear cut goals I wanted to accomplish with it and, in some ways, I was not certain exactly what I intended to do with it in the long run.  Now, after almost exactly six years, I am posting my one-hundredth blog post.  I have actually posted a few more than one hundred posts since I have previously posted and deleted a handful for various reasons.  I have accomplished a few things with this blog which have clearly made it worthwhile to continue and I have to say that, in the beginning, I was not exactly certain that I would make it a long term project.  As the masthead for this blog says, I had hoped that it could become "An ever growing site of non-fiction, flotsam, fiction, memoir, autobiography, literature, history, ethnography, and book reviews about Appalachia, Appalachian Culture, and how to keep it alive!!! Also,how to pronounce the word: Ap-uh-latch-uh."  

Partially because of my position on the appropriate pronunciation of the word "Appalachia", I came to know and sometimes converse with one of the best bloggers I have ever found on the Internet,  the man who prefers to be known as Greenbriar Jim who published a blog called "Wayfarin' Stranger".  The Wayfarin' Stranger blog is primarily a photographic blog of Appalachian photographs shot by a fine photographer who also happens to write some damn fine observations about Appalachia and the world.  He has not posted on that blog since March 13, 2014, although he and I have e-mailed some in the interim.  When he quit posting, the world lost a voice it needs to hear from time to time.  In some ways, Greenbriar Jim represents a large group of people who begin and later end blogs which are worthy of living much longer lives. I am also egotistical enough to say that he and I represent another minority group of Internet bloggers who want their blogs to become more than just a means to send trivial rants, autobiographical blurbs, and meaningless drivel.  I believe that in some ways both of us accomplished that.  I have referred his blog to many people who wanted to learn about Appalachia.  

I have also received a few cogent messages either through the blog comments section or by e-mail from people who also obviously wish to see the Appalachian lifestyle and culture continue for the foreseeable future of the world.  I have connected with a few relatives of some of my long dead friends whom I have written about.  I have accumulated 49 followers as of this post which is more than many bloggers ever have.  I naturally have no idea how many of those people continue to read my blog.  Some may have dropped off long ago but forgotten to delete me from their reading lists.  That is the way of blogs and blog readers.  I also have a few on my reading list which I haven't read in far too long.  The blog has had a total of 228,500 page views as of this sentence.  The most page views it has ever had in a month was 20,917 in April 2015.  Most months it has far fewer and I have no idea why for a couple of months it flirted with the 20,000 page view mark.  A few posts such as Appalachia What's In A Name, One Appalachian Man's Opinion Of Gun Control, and The Family Cemetery And Burial Practices In Appalachia are consistently the greatest recipients of attention.  In all three cases I believe I understand the reasons for their popularity.  Appalachia is the homeland for hundreds of thousands of displaced and urban Appalachians who long to come home to the hills whether those hills be in Kentucky, Alabama, West Virginia, North Carolina, Virginia, or Tennessee.  That explains why that post has more than 61,000 page views and leads the pack every month.  The blog post on gun control generates strong opinions on both sides of the issue and my side happens to favor strong gun control and rational use of guns as tools not adrenaline generators, substitutes for solid self esteem, or psychological splints for limber penises.  That explains why the gun control post has generated more than 48,000 page views.  In the Appalachian psyche, there is no more important place in all the world than the little family cemetery where each of us has buried our ancestors, siblings, children, friends, and other loved ones.  That explains why the post on family cemeteries has generated more than 24,500 page views and has been quoted extensively in a masters degree thesis at a major university.  There are also other posts which get little attention for reasons I do not clearly understand.  Posts on Appalachian Heroes like Florence and Sam Reece, Albert Stewart, and Cratis Williams receive little or no regular visits and all of them are some of the most important people to ever live and work in the region.  

The blog also brought me a phone call from one of the more famous people I have ever written about here and that person bought me lunch one day so we could talk.  Because that person is a major representative of the most conservative branch of Appalachian Studies and I have friends who have fought loudly and often for many political issues in the region and the world, they referred to me as "pretty radical" and I considered it a compliment although it was probably not intended that way.  I have been contacted by one potential author who interviewed me for a book she was working on about Appalachia.  To date, I have not seen that book or heard from that writer again.  Maybe I disappointed them, who knows.  I am sometimes contacted by people who are doing genealogical research on the Hicks family and wish to question me about my writing or question my ideas in general about the ancestry of most of the Hicks' in Eastern Kentucky.  I love a good, respectful intellectual discourse.  If you fall into one of those groups of people, feel free to contact me at any time.  My e-mails and telephones are listed and can be found on many sites on the internet.  I answer all of them every time they ring or a message pops up.  I have been able to review a few books for some of my writer friends and I hope I managed to sell a few copies for them.  I have managed to cast some of my literary bread upon the waters and I hope that some of it has floated onto fertile ground.  I sometimes find my writing both here and in other venues quoted, misquoted, and even appropriately cited.  If I have generated honest, open thought, I have succeeded.  If I have led someone to work to preserve Appalachia and Appalachian Culture, I have been extremely successful.  I am looking forward to the next six years and the next one hundred posts.  I hope you are too.  

As I reflect on what I can do with this blog in the next five or six years, I would love to continue to write about Appalachian Heroes, Appalachian Values, and Appalachian History.  I suspect that I will post less of my fiction on this blog since it has been published in other venues of late and I hope to continue to do so.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

"The Hills Remember The Complete Short Stories Of James Still" Book Review

Still, James and Ted Olson (Editor) 2012  The Hills Remember The Complete Short Stories Of James Still (Lexington, University of Kentucky Press) 

Growing up in Knott County Kentucky where James Still lived for most of his 94 years, I knew about James Still at about the same time I became aware of Appalachia and Appalachian Studies sometime in the late 1960's. I honestly do not recall the first time I met James Still.  I cannot say that James Still and I were friends but we were acquaintances and I was flattered to be able to refer to him as Jim to his face.  I was also able to introduce Jim Still and my long time friend and mentor, National Book Award Finalist P. J. Laska at a James Still reading at Black Swan Books in Lexington, KY, sometime in the early 1990's.  As I recall, it was some time shortly after the release of the "Wolf Pen Notebooks". That was a highly interesting evening for several reasons.  Lexington socialite Anita Madden was at the reading wearing a pair of skin tight bright blue pants and she and Jim flirted for most of the evening.  If you have never seen an 85 year old man flirt with a 60 year old woman and find that flirtation reciprocated, I highly recommend it as entertainment especially if the man and woman are of the caliber of Madden and Still.  After the reading, Laska, Still, and I went to eat at a Shoney's Restaurant on North Broadway near the Springs Motel where he usually stayed when he was in Lexington.  We stayed in the restaurant until about 1am talking about Appalachia, literature, Appalachian Literature, Still's travels around the world, the Southern Appalachian Circuit of Antioch College writers group of which Laska and I were both members, and the triumvirate of Appalachian writers of which Still was a member, the 1929 class from Lincoln Memorial University which included Still, Jesse Stuart, and my friend and mentor as well as Laska's professional colleague, Don West.  That evening deserves to be addressed in a completely separate blog or essay and will be some day.  

James Still Photo by University Of KY

Over the years I had read large chunks of Still's writing but had never had the pleasure of reading his complete short stories.  I recently bought the book "The Hills Remember..." and plowed through it in something less than record time.  It contains 53 stories of which a couple are published in the book in two versions, usually one as it was published in a magazine and another as it was included later as a chapter of a novel or part of a major short story collection. Still  had a practice of often publishing short stories in magazines and later using them as book chapters both as originally published and sometimes with significant edits.  "The Hills Remember..." is believed to contain every extant story written by Still.  Ted Olson, the editor, did an excellent job of locating, editing and collating the works.  Olson had worked with Still prior to his death, was aware of his idiosyncrasies, and was an excellent choice as the editor.  The stories are arranged in somewhat chronological order as they were originally written or published and contain all the stories which were included in "River Of Earth", "The Run For The Elbertas", "Pattern Of A Man", and "On Troublesome Creek".  The book is an excellent way for the economically minded reader to achieve as broad as possible a sampling of Still's short fiction.  But I would not recommend that the person seeking to fully understand his prose output read the book and assume they are done.  The stories which were included in "River Of Earth" are not always exactly as they were published in the novel. There may also be slight differences in these versions of the stories included in "The Run For The Elbertas" and the other two aforementioned collections.  The stories which are included as chapters in the novel "River Of Earth" are also not necessarily published in this collection along the timeline of the novel.  If you are a real aficionado of Appalachian Literature or James Still, you will want to read his entire body of work.  Still was a widely known short story author in America as evidenced by the body of stories which were previously published in national magazines such as "Atlantic", "Yale Review", and "Virginia Quarterly Review".  This book attempts, in part, to reassert Still as a major American short fiction author in addition to his prior recognition as a novelist and poet.

The book contained several stories I had not read and several of those are well above average.  The first and best surprise I received from the book was a story called "Sweet Asylum" which is set in James Still's native Alabama.  This story is about an Alabama cotton plantation owner who is deep in debt, widowed, and seeking a way to resolve his debts and save his family plantation.  It is a masterpiece which instantly reminded me of the work of Kate Chopin.  In terms of technique, it is highly reminiscent of her classic "The Story Of An Hour".  It is not quite as masterful a work but uses the same type of double twist ending to slam doors in the faces of both the protagonist and the reader. It may well be the best short story James Still ever wrote.  James Still has so thoroughly been identified as a master author of Southern Appalachia that many of his readers either forgot or never knew that he was born and grew up in Chambers County Alabama, an area that is very different culturally and physically from Knott County Kentucky and Central Appalachia. I should state for the record that I have traveled extensively in Alabama in general and Chambers County in particular and know that area quite well.  James Still did, however, spend the great majority of his life in Knott County and Appalachia and will forever be seen as an Appalachian author.  He went to Lincoln Memorial University in 1925 and graduated there in 1929 as a member of that incredible threesome of Appalachian writers: Still, Don West, and Jesse Stuart. LMU is located in Harrogate, TN, in Claiborne County, which is just as much the heart of Appalachia as Knott County. Hindman, KY, and Harrogate, TN, are only 100 miles apart.  During his time at LMU and later throughout his life, Still was a classmate and friend of both Jesse Stuart and Don West. During that time frame, John Crowe Ransom and the Agrarians and Fugitives were key components of the literary world at LMU. Collectively, Still, West, and Stuart of the LMU Class of 1929 are arguably the best single graduating class of regional writers to ever graduate from any university in the same academic year. That is a particular feather in the hat of LMU since it is a decidedly small university with only 1,675 undergraduate students as of this writing. Still then completed a Master of Arts Degree in English at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.  After completing his work at Vanderbilt he was employed by the Hindman Settlement School and remained in Knott County for the rest of his life.

The second observation I made as I read "The Hills Remember..." was that in many of Still's short stories there is a level of violence which could almost be called gratuitous.  Several of his stories, including one which I consider among his best, culminate in or originate from murder.  The second story in the book and the title piece "The Hills Remember" is a fine piece of work but also inordinately violent.  The main character, Old Aus Hanley "...had a graveyard all his own across Stormspur filled with men he had killed."  As the story begins, Aus Hanley is lying in a pool of his own blood after being ambushed by a drunk man, shot in the back by someone whom no one in the area  would have believed capable of murder and especially not capable of the murder of Aus Hanley.  A crowd gathers to watch Aus Hanley die.  The sheriff arrests the drunken perpetrator and stands near the victim also waiting to see him die.  The crowd all believe that one of Aus Hanley's family members who are too far away to attend the death will eventually seek revenge against the shooter.  But Aus Hanley calls the sheriff from his death throes to bring the shooter to him so he can learn who killed him.  The story concludes with Hanley pulling his murderer close to him and "...his right arm lunged in a single driving stroke toward Luke's breast...The handle of a Barlow knife protruded from his breast."  With his final dying act, the murdered man has also murdered his killer.  It is a wonderful story but the level of violence portrayed is well beyond that found in most short American fiction.

Speaking as a native of Knott County which is generally assumed to be the setting of most of Still's work, I must say that it is not a level of violence I found common in the time I was growing up there. I was born in Knott County roughly 20 years after James Still moved to the county.  I grew up in a country store in the Beaver Creek area of the county. My father was born in 1887 on Bruce at Mousie and lived most of his early life in Mousie, not far from Hindman where Still lived.  My mother had been born and reared on Rock Fork Creek in still another area of the county.  I was exposed to people from all over Knott County and the surrounding area.  Although I knew several people during my childhood who either had already or later committed murder, the area was never as violent as Still portrayed it in many of his stories.  A second story which is incredibly violent is called "The Scrape".  In that story, two men induce the protagonist to tie their arms together with a wire, take charge of their guns, and observe as they fight with knives to a mutual death.  "Jiddy produced a wire...He ordered me to tie an end around his left wrist, and the other about Cletis's.  A thing they had agreed on.  I did what I was bid do..."  The story ends with both men dead in the dirt road and the narrator heading off toward his original destination with the comment "I thought about Posey Houndshell.  Nobody stood between me and her." 

I must admit that I have not read the two books which might help me to further understand the violence in Still's fiction.  They are: "James Still In Interviews, Oral Histories, and Memoirs" by James Still and the aforementioned Ted Olson; and, "James Still: Critical Essays On The Dean Of Appalachian Literature" edited by Ted Olson and Kathy H. Olson.  What I would really love to see is a book length work solely addressing that issue of violence in Still's work. 

Still is also frequently referred to as one of the better, if not the best, writers in Appalachian dialect.  I do not dispute that he is a fine writer in Appalachian dialect.  But I will always believe that Mildred Haun is a far superior writer of Appalachian dialect.  Her classic work "The Hawk's Done Gone" is far and away the best dialect writing ever done in Appalachian Literature.  As I said earlier, I spent the first twenty years of my life in Knott County Kentucky, was educated there through high school and began my college education at Alice Lloyd College.  I was also reared by my parents, maternal grandparents, and an extended family of aunts and uncles who all grew up in Knott County early in, and in some cases before the turn of the twentieth century.  I know Knott County Appalachian dialect as well as any human on earth and I must insist that there are times when I see that  James Still wrote linguistic expressions which I never heard from my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, farmers at the livestock sales or jockey grounds, or the elderly customers at my parents' country store.  The one word which he used frequently, especially in "River Of Earth" and his short stories and which I never once heard in Knott County is "chaps" in reference to small children.  In my childhood, small children were "young'uns", "chillun", "yard apes", "curtain climbers", and several more conventional, less colloquial terms.  But they were never "chaps".  I suspect that is an expression from Still's youth in Alabama.  Getting back to the comparison between Still and Haun, I will defend Still to the degree that the two of them were writing dialect based on two different subregions of Central Appalachia.  I have also traveled extensively in the Cocke County, TN, area where Haun spent her life and did extensive research among Appalachian serpent handlers there.  The two subdialects have significant differences.  But Haun's consistency and accuracy in writing dialect is superior to James Still's.  It is also worth noting that it is only 63 miles from Harrogate, TN, where Still attended college to Newport, TN, where Haun lived her life.  I do not know that Still ever spent time in Newport but since he and Haun both attended Vanderbilt University it is possible that he did know her and might have even visited the area which would have also exposed him to the dialect which she wrote so admirably.  It is also possible that Still's travels from Chambers County Alabama to Claiborne County Tennessee to Davidson County Tennessee to Knott County Kentucky could have provided a plethora to opportunity for Still to blend the dialects of the four to a degree that not even he recognized. 

Do not allow anything I have said in this post to leave you with the impression that I do not respect and value the writing of James Still in all genres in which he wrote.  He is definitely at the vanguard of writers about Appalachia.  His short fiction can stand up well in comparison to nearly any other writer in American Literature.  The book "The Hills Remember..." is a compulsory read if you intend to believe or say that you understand the literature of Appalachia.  Buy a copy and read it sometime soon.  You will enjoy it greatly. 

Visiting The Smithsonian Exhibition At Wayland, KY

On Saturday, April 8, 2017, my wife Candice and I took a short road trip back to my roots to visit a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution at the old Wayland High School Gymnasium in Wayland, KY, which is about midway between three key points in my life: Lackey, KY, where I was born; Steele's Creek where my parents lived for the first six years of my life; and Dema, KY, where I lived with my parents until their deaths in 1970 and 1971.  The exhibition is titled "Hometown Teams" and will be touring a variety of small towns all over the country where high school sports have been a major part of local history, culture, and family life.  A full list of the Kentucky schedule for the exhibit in Kentucky can be found at this link.  The exhibit is supported by local volunteers and local items of interest and is well worth seeing at any of its stopping points. The exhibit will be in Wayland until April 22, 2017, and will move on to a sizable list of other sites in Kentucky.  If you can't catch it in Wayland, try to see it in another town near you. It is a part of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum On Main Street program.  I strongly recommend that you see this exhibition if it is anywhere near you.  The current illegitimate administration in Washington is attacking every kind of cultural, social, educational, and medical program within the federal government.  See this exhibition while you can.  The Smithsonian could be the next program under attack.  

Wayland High School & Gymnasium Photo by Wikipedia

Wayland High School Entrance Photo by Jamie In Wanderland

The exhibition is in two separate locations in Wayland.  The first is called the Gymnasium Annex which is a simple, cinder block building which sits on the site of the former Wayland Grade School on the same property as the historic Wayland Gymnasium and the sadly decrepit Wayland High School where many of my family members attended school.  The sight of the former high school with most of its windows shattered and obvious damage throughout is a powerful reminder that everything about consolidation was not good.  The grade school was demolished years ago when the property was first sold into private hands in order to build the building which is now the Gymnasium Annex which is another in a line of several lives which that building has had including its original purpose as a store.  My sister Barbara and nearly a dozen cousins attended school at one or both of the old schools.  I never attended school there since my parents left the Wayland area in 1957, the year in which I turned six and began school at Salisbury in Knott County.  But I did attend several basketball games in the gymnasium over my high school years both as manager of the Knott County Cardinals team for one year and simply as a spectator later.  

"King" Kelly Coleman photo by Gordon Moore

The gymnasium is a classic example of a rectangular wooden cracker box gym built all over the south more than a hundred years ago.  It is one of the few such still remaining and very few if any hold the history which that gym holds. The ground floor had no real concession area and limited bathrooms, few spectator seats by today's standards, and the playing floor ended so close to the end walls that pads were required to prevent player injuries.  But a lot of Kentucky basketball history was made on that floor.  The original scoreboard is still in place with large sign which lists the scoring records set by "King" Kelly Coleman on that beat up old hardwood floor.  The building is now being used for periodic league and pickup games as well as social events.  

Wayland High School was the home school for the most famous high school basketball player in the history of the state, "King" Kelly Coleman, who still holds many individual scoring records both in regular season and tournament games.  Kelly played at Wayland in the late 1950's when I was too young to be a basketball fan.  But during the 1960's, both of his brothers, Phillip and Keith, played basketball for Wayland High School.  Both Kelly and Phillip led Wayland teams to the Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament, the Sweet Sixteen.  Keith had a far less lustrous career but he and I became good friends after we both graduated from high school in 1968 and briefly attended Alice Lloyd College.  During this visit to Wayland for the exhibit, I learned for the first time that Keith Coleman had died in Lexington, KY, on January 14, 2017.  Phillip Coleman had died in Viet Nam in 1966 shortly after he played in the Kentucky State Tournament and graduated from Wayland High School.  Learning about the death of Keith Coleman and another dear friend of ours, Kim Watkins who had been a Wayland Cheerleader in the 1960's, was the one dark spot in that day for Candice & I.  

Phillip Coleman photo by the Coleman Family

On a brighter note, Candice & I encountered a cousin of mine, Charlotte Hicks Caudill, and her husband Ted Caudill at the exhibit also.  Charlotte writes a weekly column for The Troublesome Creek Times in Hindman, KY, and had come to the exhibit to cover it for the paper.  We also encountered retired attorney Jim Hammonds from Prestonsburg and Charlotte included a photo and comments about several of us in her article about the exhibit. I also encountered a relative of two other friends long dead, Avery Chaffins and Snap Conley, who had died in a car wreck at Garrett, KY, in the 1970's near a gas station which was operated by another cousin of mine and Charlotte's, Winfred Rice, who had died in 1988 after operating that gas station for many years.  Incidentally, we also drove past that gas station which was being auctioned off that morning and that also was a bittersweet moment.  I have no idea who the last owner of that property was and I would not have been remotely interested in owning it but I would have loved to be able to attend the auction. But the schedule for the exhibit on Saturdays is only four hours long and time was short. 

Keith Coleman photo by the Coleman Family

Getting back to the exhibition, it is housed both in the Gymnasium Annex and in the Wayland City Hall building just up the street.  It contains a multitude of sports trophies, athletic equipment, and sports letter jackets from several high schools in the area and is well worth seeing for anyone who grew up in the area surrounding Wayland, played high school sports, or simply just loves Eastern Kentucky History and memorabilia.  It is my understanding that as the exhibition moves from location to location it will change somewhat in the memorabilia shown in order to highlight the particular area it is in.  The Wayland Historical Society also has an excellent collection of high quality antiques in the City Hall building which would be worth seeing at any time even after the Smithsonian Exhibition is gone.  Pick a day and go to see the exhibit.  You will enjoy it just as much as Candice, Charlotte, Ted, and I, and you might also run into some old friends or relatives too. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"SEASONS IN THE RAVINE" by P. J. Laska--Book Review

Laska, P. J. 2017 Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems (Bedford, NH Igneus Press)

On February 25, 2017, I made my usual trip to the mail box expecting to find my usual nondescript collection of junk mail and bills to find a small manila envelope with the Arizona return address of my long time friend and mentor, P. J. Laska.  Naturally, my assumption was that it would be a book or pamphlet of some kind and I knew it would be both interesting and pertinent to these times and my life.  When I opened the package, my sense of surprise was raised to even higher levels.  It contained a copy of "Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems" which I had not known was due for release.  I immediately sent Laska a message of thanks and began fitting the book into my heavy pile of current reading, most of which is politically motivated these days.  I figured I deserved a break from my recent fare and began reading the book, as I do all poetry, in short sessions with only a few poems at a time to improve my retention, appreciation, and understanding of the material.  The book contains a suite of 22 poems (actually 20 interconnected poems and 2 addenda based on the Dao De Jing and other Oriental poetry and philosophy).  The poems were written more than a decade ago when Laska was still living in Beckley, WV, where I first met him in 1974 just after he became a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry.  His home in Beckley was located on a residential street which placed it directly behind Jimmy's Place, a small bar and Beckley institution for more than fifty years.  Laska's lot was on a steep hillside which placed his front door at street level and the lot immediately plummeted to the little stream far below which divided his property from that of Jimmy's Place.  His house was composed to two stories and a basement which was earth sheltered on the street side and open to the sun on the ravine side.  The peak of the roof must have been more than forty feet from the ground.  This description does not seem to bode well for a place to live but it was perfect for a Buddhist poet.  The lot dropped off from the street to the stream and was shaded by numerous tall trees.  The stream usually ran water most of the year and, combined with the trees, it made a wonderful habitat for birds, small game, and stray cats.  Laska built a small gazebo like hut just above the high water line and used it for meditation and writing.  It was an ideal situation except for the persistent possibility that one might break a neck descending from the street to the hut.  The ravine and the trees also served to profoundly baffle the traffic noise from the major thoroughfare on which Jimmy's Place sits.  

In that environment, Laska wrote the poems contained in "Seasons In The Ravine...".  He has told me that he was working to capture the flow of the seasons in that secluded spot in which he spent most of his time in those days.  The poems begin in spring and end in winter.  They are woven from cloth made of trees, birds, Buddhism, stray cats, and solitude.  They are excellent poetry and I have told Laska himself they contain some of the finest writing I have seen from him in years.  They prove that a committed man can find peace and solitude within earshot of a popular West Virginia watering hole.  They prove that an observant person can learn much about life and the world while seeking solitude.  They reflect Laska's long interest in Chinese poetry and the Dao. They are well worth reading but if you want to own a copy you need to contact Igneus Press sometime soon.  It is a limited edition.  If you do not obtain a copy very soon, you will find it only in selected libraries and personal collections.  I will not loan my copy.  

My personal favorites among the poems, which are numbered and untitled, are #4, #12, #13, and #16.  Those poems are woven together to tell stories about a poet, a long dead baby, a one-eyed tomcat, and life.  In #4, we find the poet:
"Reaching in with gloved hand, he rubbed

the name and date of a child that died before
           the age of one."

Then the poet allows the seasons to flow with their myriad gifts until we find him in #12 climbing out of the ravine toward home accompanied by a one-eyed tomcat whom he has named Marco Polo.

         "The abbot admired the one-eyed wanderer
          living his last season in retirement, and fed
          him from the bag he kept behind the door."

In #12, the poet (for many years Laska has been "the abbot" in his poetry) has bonded with a wandering one-eyed tomcat.  In my personal experience, many of the poets I have known and loved best  have been a great deal like wandering tomcats finding love, poems, and a life somewhere along an unscheduled and unpredictable road.  The sharing of food, whether with a new human friend or a wandering tomcat, is always a major step forward in a relationship, especially in the hills of Appalachia and Raleigh County. Poem #12 also shows us a deepening of the relationship between a tomcat and a poet who are both enjoying those shady days near the end of an unpredictable road in a quiet ravine where peace, understanding, and friendship are possible. 

 In #13, we find Marco Polo " wandering the silk road..." and we learn that "...It's because the small is great that hawks and owls know that the mice will continue to thrive."  Such poetry, such observation of the natural world, and such melding of that natural world into one's understanding of the human world is a great deal of what separates great poets like Laska from ordinary men who only admire the hawks, owls, and tomcats from a distance. 

Poem #16 brings us to "the frozen wanderer stiff as a board" after a snowy night and

the abbot took him to the lot of the empty house
across the stream, where he stumbled on the child's headstone. R.I.P for Marco.
a certain fate, an oracle of bones.
If you don't find him on the hill,
look in the ravine. In time
their skeletons may intertwine
and stay still while the land works
its changes..."

It is writing like that which separates poets from transcribers.  It is observation of nature like that which separates naturalists from hikers.  It is that kind of melding with one's environment which might one day  save the planet.  I would strongly suggest that you contact Igneus Press and purchase your copy of the limited edition of "Seasons In The Ravine A Suite Of Poems" by P. J. Laska.  And to repeat myself, I will not loan my copy.  Thank you, Pete!