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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Where Rock Fork Used To Be--My Favorite Places In Appalachia

Rock Fork Knott County Kentucky

At Garrett, KY, which is actually in Floyd County, you will find the mouth of Rock Fork Creek most of which lies in Knott County.  Actually most of what used to be Rock Fork Creek lies in Knott County Kentucky.  In my childhood and youth, Rock Fork Creek was a small creek about five or six miles long which wound away from Garrett, crossed the Knott County line and ended on one of the highest ridges in Knott County lying up against the area that my good friend, Kentucky poet Albert Stewart knew and loved as The Kingdom of Yellow Mountain.  But in the 1970's, the Kentucky Department of Highways decided to convert Kentucky Route 80, a serpentine two lane road, into a four lane highway between Prestonsburg, the county seat of Floyd County, and Hindman, the county seat of Knott County.  Nearly no one who lived in the areas affected wanted to see the road expanded except a few business people and coal operators.  Albert Stewart fought valiantly to stop the road but lost.  It demolished nearly all of Rock Fork that was meaningful and paved it over with only a few house sites and ridges left of what had been one of the most beautiful little creeks in Appalachia.  In many ways, this is a story about road construction which can be told of hundreds of little creeks in the mountains.  But the destruction of Rock Fork and Yellow Mountain was personal to Al Stewart, most of residents of Rock Fork, and to me.  

Rock Fork is and will always be in my memories and my heart.  It is also literally in my DNA.  My great grandfather, Hence Hicks is buried in the Chaffins Family Cemetery beside the Rock Fork Freewill Baptist Church which survived the highway destruction.  Hence Hicks's grave, and those of several other members of my family, are not far from the hillsides where Hence Hicks scratched out with a hoe the $4,100 for which he was murdered in a cornfield in 1935.  My maternal grandfather, Woots Hicks, was born and raised on Rock Fork and so was my mother, Mellie Hicks.  Somewhere on Rock Fork, lost to the sands of time, are the graves of an aunt and uncle who died in childhood.  Their sandstone markers are long gone.  Probably only dust remains of their bodies.  Rock Fork Creek is literally in my DNA.  

In my misspent youth, I became quite close to several people my own age who grew up and lived on Rock Fork.  Several of us were then and still are proud to have been among the first hippies in Eastern Kentucky.  We spent time together, sometimes partied together, railed against injustice together, and formed opinions which still direct our lives today.  Two of the young men who were in that group were Avery Chaffins and Snap Conley who both died in a car wreck at the Mouth of Stone Coal Creek about a mile from the Mouth of Rock Fork Creek as they were returning late one night from a trip to Vicco in Perry County, the closest wet county at the time.  The last time I ever saw Snap Conley alive was within sight of the Rock Fork Freewill Baptist Church where their funeral was held.  They are buried in a little joint Chaffins & Conley Family Cemetery on Rock Fork which the two families began upon their deaths along the line fence of the two little family farms.  During the youth service which was held in the church, with their caskets sitting end to end in front, I sat with Maude Chaffins, the mother of the Chaffins boys who were a part of that group of young hippies.  Maude Chaffins often comes to my mind because she went out of her way to take care of many of us not just her own children.  If you were able to keep your mouth shut and sleep it off, when you made it to Maude's house you knew you were safe for the night.  

Maude had a habit of not always wearing her dentures and leaving them in a coffee cup of Clorox water on the back of her stove.  Snap Conley had a habit of eating and drinking anything he could get his hands on and, since he grew up next door, was always in and out of the Chaffins house.  Many of us will never forget the time he reflexively grabbed the cup holding Maude's dentures and drank Clorox water from it thinking it was coffee or some other edible drink.  

Rock Fork Creek was destroyed by the highway but still technically remains with the four lane highway cutting its way up the entire creek to the ridge into Yellow Mountain.  Only the mountains on the sides of the creek and a few house sites on level ground remain of the Rock Fork that used to be.  But for those of us who lived some portion of our lives there, Rock Fork Creek will forever be in our hearts and minds.  Rock Fork Creek is literally in my DNA. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Why I Make French Toast

Why I Make French Toast
A Cultural Experience Paper

            My French toast is one of the favorite weekend breakfasts of both my wife and daughter.  For most people, French toast is nothing more than a fast, easy, inexpensive way to prepare breakfast.  Every time I make French toast I retell some version of the same story about where, when, how, and from whom I learned to make French toast.  For my family, the story is much more important than the French toast.  For me, the story is a way to remind myself of many of the most important values and ideas I have learned in my life.  It is also a way to remember and honor one of the finest men I have ever known.
            When I was about twenty-one, I lived in Summers County, West Virginia, on an institution called the Appalachian South Folklife Center.  The Folklife Center was founded by Don West and his wife Connie.  They lived there until shortly before their deaths in the early 1990’s.  Prior to founding the Folklife Center they had lived in Baltimore, Atlanta, and a variety of other cities and towns all over the Southern Appalachian Region.  Don West was a poet, preacher, teacher, union organizer, and social activist.  Connie was an Appalachian artist and social activist.  She spent most of her life raising her two daughters and supporting Don in his work.  Their lives were dedicated to the preservation of Appalachian culture, social activism, and the teaching of art, literature, and ideas related to those subjects.
            All year round in the 1970’s, large groups of people from all over the country and world came to the Folklife Center for workshops, festivals, and other activities.  Don West felt very strongly that the Folklife Center should not accept any government funding due to the bureaucratic and ideological controls which would have been attached to such funding.  As a result, money to operate the Folklife Center was always tight and spending had to be closely monitored. 
            One of the ways that Don West cut spending was by frequently feeding French toast for breakfast to large groups.  Don would frequently perform the cooking chores himself even though he was the founder and Executive Director.  The eggs came from chickens which were kept on the large farm which is the site of the Folklife Center.  The bread was always from the thrift store; or in the vernacular of the poor, was ‘day-old bread’.  Don had grown up on a hillside farm in North Georgia and was the hardest working person I ever knew.  He had paid his way through Lincoln Memorial University by working  in a dozen or more jobs in his four years there. He had done the same while earning a master’s degree from Vanderbilt. He had gone on to work in textile mills and coal mines in conjunction with his union organizing activities.  As the director of activities at the Folklife Center, he ran the farm and often engaged in carpentry, plumbing, or logging in order to lower expenses.  Don would enter the kitchen at 5 or 6am with his large calloused hands and do the work in the kitchen while simultaneously teaching Appalachian culture, literature, or union history to whomever might be helping him that morning.  On many of those mornings, I was lucky enough to be helping Don West.
            Don had graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in 1929 in a class that included James Still and Jesse Stuart who were also famous Appalachian writers.  Don was famous enough at his death that the New York Times carried his obituary.  However, he was not nearly as well known as his two classmates.  But collectively, they are often referred to as the best group of regional writers to graduate in a single class from any college or university.  The fact that Don West was not as well known was largely a matter of choice on his part.  His first major book of poetry, “Clods Of Southern Earth” was a major pre-publication success and received very positive reviews all over the country.  Don West could have pursued his writing career purely for the sake of money and success and would have been likely to be just as well known as Still and Stuart.  Instead, he chose to focus the work of his life on the promotion of Appalachian culture, unionism, and social activism in a consistent and unflinching way for the rest of his life.
            Don West was actively involved in the defense of the Scottsboro Boys. Don West was run out of Atlanta for working to spread the truth about Angelo Herndon, a black radical who was sentenced to death in Atlanta under the sedition and treason laws of the time during the Great Depression for speaking out against poverty and discrimination in the south.  During his lifetime, Don West had three homes burned by people who were opposed to the teaching of social activism and equality.  Don West was called before the McCarthy Committee during the witch hunts; and his testimony was copied and passed out on street corners by people opposed to his teachings in Hinton, West Virginia, when he first created the Folklife Center. 
            The final fire in Don West’s life was accidental and destroyed the combination dining hall, kitchen, and meeting room at the Folklife Center in the time I lived there.  A small group of us had been to an evening class at the Antioch Appalachia location in Beckley, West Virginia, and received a call that the building was in flames.  We rushed at dangerous speeds across the mountain between Beckley and Hinton, past Bluestone Dam and onto the Folklife Center property to find Don and Connie West, a few volunteer firemen, and a small group of neighbors who had learned over the recent years just how important Don West and the Folklife Center were to Appalachia.  Don West, who had been beaten and left for dead in Harlan County union efforts, sentenced to inhumane country jails for his beliefs, and threatened with death a hundred times stood with his six foot four frame bent and tears in his eyes staring into the still flaming embers.  His arms and face were scorched from multiple trips into the flames to rescue several of Connie’s paintings and a few mementos of their lives.  But the thing that Don West spoke of regretting losing most was a simple chestnut board riddled with bullet holes.  It had been labeled The Death Board where it had hung for years over the food service window.  That board had been in a wall in a small coal miner’s shack where several union miners had been stood against the wall and murdered by company gun thugs.  That board had symbolized the entire American labor effort against inadequate wages, open shops, and company sponsored discrimination.  It had also symbolized both the group of men who had been willing to die for the effort and Don West who had lived his life with the same willingness to die for the effort while fighting daily to see that such men and women were never forgotten. 
            Another of the most telling memories I have of Don concerns the one time he allowed me to read his scrapbook.  As I was leafing through the volume of book reviews, newspaper stories, and letters, I came on a wrinkled and tattered page from a Blue Horse Writing Tablet, the common household writing paper of the south.  There was a hole in one side of the page where it had been wrapped around a brick which had been thrown through Don’s window in the middle of the night.  In a semi-literate scrawl, the page read “You nigger loving son of a bitch get your ass out of Georgia”.  Don had simply replaced the window, put the page in his scrapbook and gone back to work teaching, preaching, and promoting the ideas in which he believed.
            When I make French toast, I am doing much more than just making French toast.  I am honoring Don West and the life he lived.  I am making sure that at least a few other people in my life know that there are many more important things in the world than money.  I am working to pass on the ideas and values I learned from Don West.  I am making an attempt to insure that my daughter will have the foundation of thinking instilled in her which can lead her to be a contributing member of society in more than a simple tax paying kind of way.  I am doing much more than making French toast.


There’s Anger In The Land

By Don West

              In the summer of 1950 I picked up a Negro hitchhiker in south Georgia and brought him across the Chatahoochee at Eufala, Alabama.  As we crossed the river, he began telling me the story of how his brother was lynched and his body cut down from the limb and flung across the doorway of his mother’s shack—broken, bloody, and lifeless.

              Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
              And there’s weeping in the weeds
              There is sorrow in the shanty
              Where a broken body bleeds…


For there’s been another lynching
              And another grain of sand
              Swells the mountain of resentment—
              Oh, there’s anger in the land!


And a woman broods in silence
              Close beside an open door
              Flung across the flimsy doorstep
              Lies a corpse upon the floor!

              You’ll not ask me why I’m silent;
              Thus the woman spoke to me
              Her two eyes blazed forth anger
              And her throat throbbed agony.

              Let the wind go crying yonder
              In the treetops by the spring,
              Let it’s voice be soft and feeling
              Like it was a living thing.

              Once my heart could cry in sorrow
              Now it lies there on the floor
              In the ashes by the hearth-stone—
              They can’t hurt it anymore!

              Did you ever see a lynching,
              Ever see a frenzied mob
              Mill around a swaying body
              When it’s done it’s hellish job?

              Yes, the night was full of terror
              And the deeds were full of wrong
              Where they hung him to a beech wood
              After beating with a thong.

              Oh, there’s grieving in the plum grove
              And there’s sobbing on the sand,
              There is sorrow in the shanties—
              And there is anger in the land!

            When I make French toast, I am doing much more than making French toast.

 Copyright 2003 & 2015 by Roger D. Hicks

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Widespot Women's Club

Appalachian Fiction by Roger D. Hicks*

They had never chosen the name for themselves.  They never would have.  The name had been given to them by the community.  Or more accurately, the name had been given to them by the men of the community.  They were known quietly and derisively, often even by their husbands, as the Widespot Women's Club.  They were spoken of this way on days when decisions were being made about the little church to which they all belonged.  On these days the church board would meet and all the members of the Widespot Women's Club would be there in their official capacity.  Today the Widespot Women's Club was meeting.  There was a decision to be made.

Today, like all days when the Women's Club met, the men were in the Widespot Grocery next door, talking, telling jokes, trading knives, and waiting to hear what decision had been made by the Women's Club.  No man had ever been a member of the Widespot Church Board.  None of them ever expected to be.  It was a situation they had come to accept; some of them quietly, some with grumbling, and some with the faint hope that someday something would change.  All these men were members of the church.  All attended church each Sunday.  All came to the Widespot Grocery to vent their frustrations, eat a bologna sandwich, or buy a few groceries. 

Widespot had been named several years ago when the post office had been about to arrive in a little white building across the road from the grocery.  The post office was going into a new little building beside the house of Wilhelmina "Willie" Wilson who in addition to being the postmaster was the chairperson of the Widespot Church Board.  Willie was known in the all male enclave at the grocery as "The President", a name her husband Bobby had coined once when a decision of the Women's Club had left him feeling powerless and emasculated.  The post office had required a name and the community was so small that it had never even had a name until the Postmaster General had decreed that it must.  The decree had also delegated total authority to Willie, in her capacity as postmaster, to choose that name.  After long thought and little discussion with anyone, Willie had chosen the name Widespot for a place that had been known in past years as Down The Road, Over There, and Them Wilson's Place.  Willie had chosen the name; the place would forever be Widespot and that was that.  This was Willie's customary way of making decisions.  This was how the decision today would be made in the Widespot Church. 

Willie called the meeting to order in her customary way--"Well, let's get started."  The other women in the club nodded, smiled, and mumbled, "Okay", "All Right", and "Uh Huh", just as they always did at the start of every meeting.  In the store, Bobby sat on his stool behind the u-shaped wooden counter littered with a hand operated cash register, an old set of Globe-Stimpson scales, wrapping paper for bologna sandwiches, and a University of Kentucky basketball schedule.  He called the meeting of the Widespot men to order in his usual way--"Well boys, what do you think they're going to do over there?"  Bobby's brother Billie, Uncle Bert Small, and the others all responded in their usual way.  There were muttered grunts, "I don't have no idea", and a statement from Jim Bob Johnson, the only single man in the group, "Whatever they want to do, just like always." They all knew that today a decision would be made. 

The Women's Club would hire a permanent minister for the church today.  There were only two candidates for the job.  There were two opinions in the community about who should be hired and why.  There was only one opinion in the Women's Club and that was Willie's opinion.  She already knew who would be hired; in their own way, the men knew who would be hired also. 

One of the candidates was a retired minister who had once helped build a large and effective church on the other side of the state.  He held a doctoral degree from the best seminary in the state and had been a minister for over fifty years.  He was looking for one last community and church in which to preach, minister, and matter.  He was known as Tom Price, or in the area where he had preached before, as Independent Price.  Independent Price had been given that name by a banker who had once served as the chairman of a church board where Tom Price had served.  The banker had wanted very much at that time to build a church football field that would bear his name because he loved both football and himself.  Tom Price had wanted to build a new addition to the church that would house several new Sunday School rooms and a baptistery because he loved to minister and felt the church needed the new addition.  Tom Price had won the discussion with that church board and the new addition had been built.  However, the banker had won the overall discussion with the community and Tom Price found himself out of a job a year later and known as Independent Price.  He had not sought the appellation, but he did not deny or abhor it.  He cherished his independence and believed he had earned it with fifty years of service to the Lord.

The other candidate was a nervous and acquiescent young man of twenty, who was in his first year at a second rate seminary whose students were farmed out to little churches at low wages while they completed their educations.  His name was Marion Shirley, although the men in the Widespot Grocery had begun to call him Shirley Marion.  Shirley had no degree; he had no experience; he had no opinions and no desire to form any.  He was exactly the kind of minister Willie Wilson wanted.  She had realized this one morning as she had begun making biscuits.  The dough in her hands had been soft, white, and formless.  It changed shape often and readily in her hands.  It met her every desire and was completely powerless to resist.    And, after ten minutes in her overheated oven, the biscuit dough would become small, tasteless, worthless lumps that bore no resemblance to anything desirable.  Naturally, as she kneaded the dough, Willie thought of Marion Shirley and what he could become in her hands. 

Marion Shirley was about to become the next minister of the Widespot Community Church and he had no idea. That was his customary state. He had come to the church on a Sunday in July just before his first semester in the seminary to preach on an emergency basis without having ever known where Widespot was, who lived there, or their leanings in religion.  The little church often had ministers sent to them by the seminary president because they often had ministers sent elsewhere by the Widespot Women's Club due to Willie's aversion to "preaching that got too far over everybody's heads".  Bobby and Jim Bob Johnson had jointly come to the conclusion that her real aversion was to preaching that got too deep in the Bible.  Bobby was not a supporter of his wife's positions.  However, his wife was the primary support of their family since her father had once made a living buying, selling, and converting anything his hands found available into money.  Willie owned the Wilson home.  She owned the building in which the Widespot post office resided, and her father had donated the land on which the church sat.  Bobby knew better than to argue with Willie.  Tom Price had come to Wide Spot under the same circumstances as Marion Shirley since the seminary president also sometimes referred him to churches on a temporary basis.  Tom had come to Widespot with knowledge of the church structure statewide and a general knowledge that no minister had stayed in Widespot long who ever amounted to much later in life.  Tom had come to the church just as he had gone to many churches armed with his Bible, an extensive knowledge of its contents, and a lifetime of experience in both ministry and the world.  

Tom preached a sermon that first morning based on a short story from Tolstoy and a Biblical text.  He also had an extensive knowledge of literature.  The sermon had called for Christian action, love for the down trodden, and awareness of one's own shortcomings.  Willie had stated after she gave Tom the little check from the church, "Can you believe that man preached a sermon about a story some Russian wrote?"  On his way to his car, Tom Price smiled to himself and thought, "That was not the favorite sermon some of those people ever heard.  But thank the Lord, they heard the truth."  

On his first Sunday in Widespot, Marion Shirley had preached, or more accurately, mumbled and stuttered his way through a brief attempt to explain why he thought he should become a minister.  He had no Biblical text, organization, or conclusion.  It pleased Willie Wilson greatly.  As she handed the quaking young man the check, she gushed praise for him, saying, "That was so nice Marion.  You are going to make a fine minister.  The church needs more dedicated young men like you to preach the gospel."  Marion had limped to his car thinking, "Why on God's green earth did I ever think I could be a preacher?"  For the first time in his life, he had come to an accurate assessment of himself.  Willie Wilson had not.  

The minister who  had been serving the Widespot Community Church at the time of the first visits by Shirley Marion and Tom Price had returned from his vacation in Myrtle Beach to inform the church that another opportunity had been offered to him during his trip and he must resign.  The opportunity had been in the form of the bikini clad daughter of a Georgia peanut farmer but the minister did not inform Willie Wilson or the church of that in his resignation.  Instead, he simply stated, "I must leave within sixty days to pursue a career in agriculture in Georgia.  I may also minister to a small flock there as well."  He made no mention of  the ministration he had in mind or the fact that they would be on the peanut farmer's daughter.  She had assured the fellow "Daddy will take care of us and you can take care of me."  Like many of Willie Wilson's former ministers he had found his natural calling.   

The resignation had left a job to be filled and for two months the seminary president had sent a different seminary student or retired minister to Widespot each to preach while the church board reached  a decision about which they wished to hire.  The only two who applied for the job were Marion Shirley and Tom Price.  Each was called back to preach one additional sermon prior to the meeting of the church board.  Marion Shirley had blundered his way through an essay he had snitched from Reader's Digest about finding satisfaction.  Tom Price had preached eloquently and well on a text from the New Testament with the title "Do You Know A Prostitute?  Jesus Did!"   Tom Price's sermon caught the hearts of Bobby Wilson and Jim Bob Johnson.  Uncle Bert Small said he found the sermon interesting, "but I just ain't that interested in it at my age."  Marion Shirley's blundering ineptitude and apparent malleability caught Willie's heart.  She made the final decision of the church board with her hands deep in her biscuit dough.  

Immediately after bringing the meeting of the church board to order, Willie Wilson stated to the group, "As you all know, we are here today to decide which minister we are going to hire for the church.  We had two applicants, that wonderful young man of the cloth, Marion Shirley, and the old man from over in the flat land who preached about that communist writer when he was here.  None of the women, including Willie, remembered, or wished to, that the sermon had been about nothing remotely related to communism.  But Willie knew that since the story on which it was based had been by Tolstoy she could easily hang Independent Price from the yardarm which Tolstoy's words had created.  The restless squirmings and unhappy mutterings of her minions told Willie instantly that she had chosen the correct method of getting her way.  

After assessing the mood of her club members, Willie went on.  "We have all seen the applications, (She did not know the word resume.) and it is obvious to me from the fine work Marion Shirley did in high school that he is going to do fine work at the Bible college and he will be a fine young minister.  Would anybody like to make a motion that we hire one of the applicants?"  There could only be one name placed in nomination.  Willie waited patiently to see which of her underlings would nominate Marion Shirley.  She knew that each of the women wanted to make the nomination but that they also would hesitate for some time in order to avoid the possibility of appearing to seek to take charge.  Finally, Bert Small's half sister, Sally "Sweet" Small, a bitter, venomous old maid who might one day assume Willie's seat at the head of the table were it not for her lack of intelligence and overabundance of bad judgement, leaned forward and said, "I think we should assist the good Lord in doing his work and give that fine young man a chance to preach where we can help him along in a good way."  

Willie smiled and accepted the nomination after it was seconded by Bobby's obese and timid Aunt Birdie Miles.  Then Willie asked, "And would anybody like to make any other nominations?"  Mercifully, she hesitated only briefly before closing the nominations lest one of her club members err by nominating Tom Price.  Then she proceeded by saying, "Well, since we only have one nomination, we don't have to put it to a vote.  We have just made the God directed choice of hiring that eloquent young man Marion Shirley to be our next minister."  Then Willie brought the official meeting to a close by asking, "Birdie, did you bring any of that wonderful German Chocolate Cake today?"  

The meeting broke up quickly and the women served the cake and coffee which had been perking in the kitchen and the conversation turned to grandchildren, spring greens, and ways to keep onions from going to seed.  Then Sally Small asked, "Don't you think we should get that fine young man a welcoming gift before next Sunday? And who is going to tell him he has been hired?"  

Willie gave a Sally a look that left no doubt who would deliver the message and then smiled benignly at the other members of the Widespot Women's Club, "You all can find him some kind of gift with the church money.  But it should be small and we can give it to him after church on Sunday,  I'll call him, as the chairperson, to tell him we have hired him.  I might get him some kind of welcome gift of my own.  But if I do, I'll give it to him when we meet in town to discuss his money and other stuff."  Then she smiled sweetly, contentedly, and thought quietly to herself of that upcoming private conversation with the naive young man.  Then as she helped clean the table of the cake crumbs, she said to no one in particular, "I think I'll bake biscuits in the morning.  I swear I'm craving biscuits."

Author's Note: This story was originally published in "Orpheus Volume VI No. 1 Spring 2004".  Orpheus held first publication rights only.  
Copyrighted by Roger D. Hicks, 2003 & 2015.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015



Today I buried the best dog in the world.  Her name was Giggles and she was a 15 pound miniature Dachshund who had been a member of our family all but six weeks of her long, wonderful, and loving life.  We got her in late 2000 shortly after my wife Candice had progressed into a wheelchair due to a rare, genetic, degenerative disease which had begun in the middle 1990's when she was in her middle 20's. Giggles would have been fifteen if she had lived until December.  Candice had a great deal of depression early in her disease progression.  When we got Giggles, she proceeded to spend the great majority of her life in Candice's lap or walking between the wheels and behind the axle of her wheelchair on their many trips to Old Mill Park in our home town of West Liberty, KY, where they often went to exercise.  Giggles learned very rapidly that the best way to avoid being nipped by the wheelchair wheels required her to stay between the wheels when the chair was in motion.  When Candice would stop rolling, Giggles would come around to the front of the chair, climb on the footplate and then into Candice's lap which was her favorite place in the world.  I have always said that she was the best untrained therapy dog in the world.  I gradually came to simply call her The Best Dog In The World and she was.  She was a bundle of joy and boundless energy.  She went nearly everywhere we did except to work. And we developed a habit, if we were leaving her at home to tell her "we are going to work" no matter where we went.  She traveled a great deal of the Eastern United States with us by car and it never mattered where we were so long as Candice and her wheelchair were there Giggles was absolutely dependable in any situation.  She loved me too and I loved her just as much as Candice did.  But in her heart, Giggles had a seven day a week job taking care of her "Mommy".  But until she got too old to climb up into my pickup, she would meet me at the top of our driveway, if she and Candice were in the yard when I came home.  And then she would climb in the seat with me behind the steering wheel and greet me with a "howl fest" which we both loved to do generally to the accompaniment of my favorite Bluegrass music.  She slept in the bed with us every night and loved to spend long hours in Candice's lap in a recliner under a quilt.  Candice continued to work for ten years in our local food stamp office after she progressed into the chair and Giggles was a major part of that accomplishment.  She was much more than a dog.  She was a family member.  In the fall of 2010, she survived a stroke which temporarily disabled her entire left side and we thought at the onset that she would not survive that event.  So, in reality, we had known for five years that she was on borrowed time.  But we were not anywhere near ready to see her go.  She developed serious intestinal problems late last night and went downhill rapidly.  There is no real late night emergency veterinary services in our area and we were hoping she could hold on until they opened today.  But she deteriorated quickly after 4:30am and died in her "Mommy's" arms at 6am.  We wrapped her in her favorite blanket and chose a spot for her in front of the sidewalk in front of the porch as close to the house as we could keep her.  As I dug her grave with the same old hand tools, I have seen my elderly neighbors use to dig human graves during my childhood, I remembered one man in particular who had no public job, volunteered to help dig every grave within walking distance of his house, and felt very strongly that the last decent thing we can do for anybody is to dig them a perfect grave.  I have seen that man mix small balls of mud to fill tiny holes which fell out of the side walls of a grave in order to ensure that he was paying proper respect to the deceased.  So in memory of that old man and The Best Dog In The World, I tried my best to dig her a perfect grave.  I used my double bit axe to cut the tree roots and throw them out.  I used my spade to smooth the bottom and the sides.  I got down on my knees and laid her gently in it and told her I loved her once last time.  But nothing I have done today, or in the last fourteen plus years can ever properly repay that little dog for everything she has done for me.  And, I will end this piece with a comment I have made about her in a multitude of places for quite a few years: I thought more of that dog than I did many of my relatives.  She was with us for almost fifteen years and never lied to me, stole anything from me, or ever voted Republican.  You can't ask for much more from a dog.  Godspeed, Little Girl!  I love you!  

Monday, September 7, 2015



    When I was growing up in Knott County KY, I was taught on a daily basis that Franklin D. Roosevelt, from whom I had gotten my middle name had, along with Winston Churchill, saved the world and that the best interests of the working class, poor, elderly, infirm, young, disabled, and minorities lay with the Democratic Party.  Later, after I left Knott County for a larger and wider world, I was fortunate enough to meet and be mentored by two other men, Don West and Jim Ferrell, who reinforced the validity of my childhood political learning.  During my youth, I was taught that there is no worse form of vermin in the world than a "straddle poll".  For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, a straddle poll is a person who regularly switches sides in elections, jumping from party to party and candidate to candidate based on whim and easily shifting winds of purported change.  In my youth, the switches were most often predicated by a flurry of $5 bills and half pints of whiskey passed out within a few days of the election.  In my native Knott County, which had been controlled solidly by Democrats for more than a hundred years, such a switch was predicated by thousands of tons of gravels placed on private driveways and roads which resulted in the winning Republican Judge Executive being sent to the federal penitentiary on election fraud charges.  And actually, that Judge Executive was following in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessor who had already been tried, convicted, and sentenced on similar charges.  Today, I am unable to even find the term straddle poll in my Concise Oxford English Dictionary.  When I look it up on Google, the answer comes back with the second word spelled "pole" and describes an artful move by a nude dancer. In some ways, the two definitions are rooted in similar shenanigans or artful moves under duress.  In addition to attempting to educate potential voters about the inherent fallacies in independent politics, a major objective of this post will be to salvage the expression "straddle poll" from the linguistic scrap heap.  

Today it is not uncommon at all to hear individuals who regularly vote exclaim proudly that they are "an independent and I vote for the candidate and not the party".  More than 200 years of American history have proven this belief to be self defeating and unfounded.  I know of one county in Eastern KY, Magoffin County, where the court house is regularly occupied by a divided corps of elected officials split between the two major parties and generally unable to agree on anything more than the site of the actual court house.  That county has been embroiled in legal disputes over elections for at least five years involving the duly elected County Judge Executive and his narrowly defeated opponent.  The case has wound its way through the KY court system and the appeals process has become both highly personal and unending.  And, whether the voters ever admit it or not,  the turmoil is a direct result of an electorate who are incapable of committing wholeheartedly to either political party for any length of time.  It is a direct result of straddle poll politics in both aforementioned counties.  Additionally, when local jurisdictions, whether they be counties, precincts or cities, become unpredictable in their voting patterns, politicians and leaders in control of both major parties become distrustful of the electorate and are more and more unwilling to take positive actions to support that electorate and provide the communities involved with the services and infrastructure they need.  For many years, Magoffin County KY has been among the highest counties in unemployment in the state in spite of having been crossed by the Mountain Parkway, a major artery for business in and out of Eastern KY.  But business executives are often unwilling to commit large expenditures for long term operations in a county where the leadership of the court house in unlikely to remain in place more than one term.

By contrast, Leslie County KY, about 85 miles to the southeast and located along the Daniel Boone Parkway, has been a solid Civil War Republican County since 1865.  It is impossible for a Democrat to get elected in that county and it served as the site of Former President Richard Nixon's return to public life after his impeachment and resignation primarily because it has been absolutely loyal to Republican causes since long before the current oldest residents were born.  In that kind of safely predictable setting, a former president was willing to step out in public and begin his work to rebuild his legacy as much as possible before his death.  And, while Leslie County KY is not generally wealthy, their economic existence is much more stable and predictable because higher level politicians and business executives know that the county is politically predictable.  \

My own home county, Morgan County Ky, is currently simultaneously working to recover from a major tornado on March 2, 2012, and the necessity for the federal government to prosecute, convict, and imprison County Judge Tim Conley, a Republican who was elected in 2008 after more than a hundred years of highly predictable Democratic results in the county.  The bottom line is that straddle poll politics does not work.  It is not any less distasteful if it is called by the misnomer "independent politics" and it will nearly always result in confusion at the court house, distrust by state and national party leaders due to unpredictability, and will always cost a locality in terms of investments, infrastructure, and political capital in state houses and Washington, DC.  Or as my father taught me, if you keep jumping back and forth across the political fence, sooner or later you will leave the figurative family jewels hanging on the barbed wire. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015



On Thursday, September 3, 2015, in Ashland, KY, US Circuit Court Judge David Bunning will conduct a hearing to determine whether Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis has committed contempt of court by defying the judge's order that she provide marriage licenses to all applicants in keeping with the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges as well as their decision in late August 2015 to deny Davis' appeal without comment.  Judge Bunning will have the option, if he finds that Davis is in contempt of court, of 1) mandating that the clerk pay hefty fines on a daily basis; 2) ordering that she be jailed until she either resigns from office or decides to comply with the Supreme Court decision; or, 3) a combination of the two previously listed penalties. Most legal experts who have been interviewed in the media have stated they believe the judge will not jail Davis at this hearing but will fine her heavily with a cumulative daily fine and give her one more chance to comply with the law.

It is my opinion that Davis is highly unlikely to comply under the duress of anything less than jail time.  The judge has also ordered all of Davis' deputy clerks to attend the hearing.  Those deputies have also been defying recent court decisions and orders but the common assumption is that their defiance is motivated by the need to obey Davis in order to keep their state jobs.  But it is my opinion that they will be likely to be fined individually at this first hearing.  I also tend to believe they will be polled by the judge as to their individual beliefs about the ongoing events and given the option of offering to issue marriage licenses.

Davis has consistently stated that her defiance is based on her "deeply held religious beliefs" about the sanctity of marriage.  Davis reports that she is a member of the Solid Rock Apostolic Church, an unaffiliated Holiness church at Farmers, KY.  But it has also been common knowledge in Eastern KY and Morehead for several years that Davis has been married four times, divorced three times, and has actually married her current husband twice.  There are also media reports that the record proves that Davis conceived a set of twins with her eventual third husband while married to her first.  These reports also state that when Davis divorced that first husband she married a second who adopted those children conceived with the yet to be married third husband.  Davis is then reported to have been divorced again before eventually marrying the biological father of her children as her third husband.  Quite frankly all this marriage record serves to do is remind me of the old baseball comment that "you have to have a scorecard to know who is in the game".  It is also clearly reason to question any of Davis' stated respect for the sanctity of marriage and perhaps even common decency.

At this point, it is appropriate that I state for the record that I am a 64 year old married heterosexual male who graduated from Morehead State University in2000 as a non-traditional student in my late 40's.  I completed every course for my bachelor's degree on the main campus in Morehead.  I also completed the university's Academic Honors Program and graduated as the Outstanding Student in the Social Work Department and served one year as President of the Non-Traditional Students Organization.  Let it be clearly understand that I know Morehead, KY, quite well and I deeply committed to the long term welfare of the community and all its citizens.  It is also pertinent to say that I was raised in the Old Regular Baptist Church, one of the most conservative forms of Baptist theology.  As a part of my academic and literary work, I have also studied Appalachian serpent handlers extensively for a pending book.  I also maintain ongoing friendships and business relationships with both Mennonite and Amish church members in both KY and IN.  I also believe it should be clearly understood that I am qualified to discuss minority religious beliefs in the Appalachian region.  I gradually came to support the right of all citizens to marry despite the fact that I have had GLBT friends since the 1960's.  As I have watched the Kim Davis story unfold and become a stain on the city of Morehead and Rowan County, I have been appalled at her total disregard for law and the US Supreme Court.  It is my sincere belief that this fiasco has the capacity to serve as a long term negative influence on the community.

I am uncertain about the actual internal motivations of Davis but I doubt the sincerity of her stated support for "the sanctity of marriage".  It is clear to me that she unfit to serve in elective office and deserves jail time until she either resigns from office or agrees to do her job, her entire job, and to issue marriage licenses to any couples who apply just as 117 of the 120 clerks in KY have been doing since the day after the Supreme Court decided the issue.  No person's individual rights can ever be allowed to infringe on the majority and Davis has clearly, singularly, and blatantly attempted to defy the highest court in the land.  She should be jailed immediately.  She should also receive a heavy, daily, cumulative fine.  She should be forced to leave office and this stain should be wiped clear from the image of the greater community.

In general, Morehead has always been one of the more tolerant and forward thinking communities in KY and Appalachia.  It has always benefited from being a university town with a high percentage of educated residents.  Morehead deserves to have its reputation restored.  There is no doubt that the courts will continue to uphold the right of every citizen to marry.  There is no doubt that eventually Kim Davis will leave public office and a generalized sigh of relief will be heard all over KY.  But I envision a time when Morehead, KY, can actually benefit from all this uproar by becoming a destination for same sex couples to come in order to be married.  On September 2, 2015, at least one out of state gay couple came to Morehead to apply for a marriage license.  If the community if relieved of the blight of Kim Davis and embraces the rights of all citizens as it always has, a time can come when Kim Davis is nothing more than a mildly embarrassing memory.  Now lets all just hope that Judge David Bunning once again performs his duty and sends Kim Davis to jail in order afford her some time to think. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Ruminations On 2014 In Appalachia And America

For a variety of reasons, I have not written anything of consequence in the last several months but I have maintained my usually close observation of a variety of issues both in Appalachia and America at large.  I have to admit that I was caught up in political observation for most of the past year or so and I have been generally disappointed by the results of the elections I have watched.  The Republican Party has managed to gain control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1928 and we all know what the outcome of that was.  John Boehner has been re-elected as the Apeaker of the House and Mitch McConnell of KY has been elected Senate Majority Leader.  I had strongly supported the election of Alison Lundergan Grimes to the senate from KY and was sorely disappointed by her loss to McConnell.  The one bright side to that is that she has lost none of her appeal in KY and could still be senator or governor.  Along with the re-election of most of the Republicans in both houses of congress, they gained several seats in both houses and their new members in the lower body particularly are of a Right Wing Radical persuasion which is terrifying.  They have also appointed Rep. Scalise from Louisiana as the House Republican Whip despite clear evidence of his connections to several white supremacist organizations including one headed by former Grand Dragon of the KKK David Duke.  In response to some rather vociferous reactions to the appointment of Scalise, Duke has threatened to out every member of congress to whom he has connections and he claims to have many.  My personal response to that is to say "Let her rip, David!"  In the event that he did release a list of names, it would give liberal and middle of the road Americans a clear group of elected officials with whom to be displeased and to resist in future elections.  I doubt that he will release the list of names since he knows that could trigger more than one defeat in the future and weaken whatever connections he still has to Washington power.  

In my own KY, Senator Rand Paul is making more and more noise that he intends to run for President and is actually being perceived by a certain segment of the electorate as a legitimate candidate.  That assessment of the man could not be further from the truth.  He is a true Right Wing Radical Republican with ties to the Tea Party and generally does not represent the views of most of Kentuckians or Americans.  He also has more than one distasteful, illegal, immoral, or disqualifying incident or expressed belief in his past.  As an eye doctor in Western KY he has been sued for malpractice at least twice and created his own accreditation body when he was unable to qualify for accreditation.  There is also the prior allegation of his involvement in an alleged sexual assault while in college.  But the alleged victim in that incident suddenly dropped off the media radar after making serious allegations.  However, she never withdrew those allegations and that seems to raise two possibilities for her silence.  Either she was actually lying or she was either coerced or bribed to get her to shut up.  Senator Paul is also planning to try to run for both President and Senator in a violation of the KY constitution which blocks anyone from running for more than one public office at the same time.  Alison Lundergan Grimes, the KY Secretary of State, is responsible for overseeing the election process in the state and has said she will sue Paul in federal court if he attempts to register for both offices.  In the event that this issue does arise in the coming months, Secretary Grimes deserves the support of every rational voter in the state in her efforts to stop Senator Paul.  I hope to write further on the possibility of Rand Paul as a Presidential candidate in the future  but I need to do more research on one particular aspect of that idea, his close ideological resemblance to former Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, the godfather of the Anti-Communist crusades in the 1950s which literally destroyed the lives of thousands of good, decent Americans who were not remotely communists and done absolutely nothing wrong.  

And, in that vein, I have personally never been more fearful about the state of American Democracy than I am today.  Even in the 1960's & 1970's with Richard Nixon in power and great crimes being committed against personal liberties, I was not as fearful of potential outcomes as I am today after this most recent election.  In the Viet Nam Era, both houses of Congress were still occupied by a group of honest, decent, law abiding citizens of both political parties  such as Senator Sam Irvine, Senator Barry Goldwater, Senator Everett Dirkson and others who would not have joined an illegal conspiracy in order to gain their political ends.  Today, with the current congress, I cannot make that statement.  Senator Paul himself has been heard to say that he believes that lying is a legitimate means to gain political ends.  West Virginia has elected Senator Shirley Moore Capito whose father served prison time due to political corruption as Governor of West Virginia.  Whip Scalise has connections to the KKK.  And the list goes on.  

Additionally, the Citizens United decision from the U. S. Supreme Court cleared the way for a great deal of what happened in this most recent election.  The entire idea that a corporation can make unlimited contributions to political races and be viewed by the courts as a "person" is a giant step toward the destruction of the concept of "one citizen one vote".  This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that less than 40% of eligible voters actually went to the polls in 2014, I have recently begun to repeat a mantra whose source I have been unable to clearly identify that "bad politicians are elected by good people who don't vote".   Corporations and the super rich will always speak up and spend money to protect their vested interests.  Single anonymous citizens, especially if they are poor, will frequently if not generally, fail to speak up for their rights and needs due to the need to find daily subsistence.  Poverty makes us involuntarily prioritize our actions in ways that do not support our own best interests.  And many of the already stated goals of the Republican majorities in congress are geared to increase the ever expanding wealth gap among Americans by privatizing Social Security; destroying Medicare, Medicaid, and Obama Care; continuing high interest rates and instituting higher qualifications for student loans; continuing to refuse to tax corporations and the rich at rates equal to those imposed on the working class; decreasing VA loans and other VA benefits; eliminating funding for National Public Radio; and a thousand other unstated programs in government are in danger from this congress.  

To repeat myself, I have never felt that American Democracy was more endangered than it is today.