DAVID, KY., OCT. 29 -- THE ONSET of autumn is a mixed blessing for low-income people in the eastern Kentucky mountains. With colder weather approaching, they will feel the burden of trying to heat their homes. But leaves are burned to a golden crispness, tangles of weeds are stripped to the stem, and it is easier than in the summer to search the underbrush along roadsides for aluminum cans. Tiny triangular beggar's lice cling to clothing and must be patiently picked off, but there is no fear of chancing upon a copperhead, or stumbling into a yellow jackets' nest, and the cans are easy to find.
Driving near my home in an eastern Kentucky coal camp, I pass an old woman standing in the ditch beside the road. She looks like everyone's grandmother, with her gray hair pulled into a tight bun, her 1950s swept-wing eyeglasses. She wears a straight skirt and boots to protect her ankles from the weeds. She cradles a cardboard box on her hip, bends over, searching for cans. It is work she can handle, for aluminum isn't heavy to carry. She will fetch a penny per can from the recycling center at Paintsville.
There was a time, in the early 1960s, when the Appalachian poor were a frequent topic of television news and newspaper stories. Audiences and readers were invited to pity the poor mountain people, left behind by decades of national progress and prosperity. New government programs poured money into the region, with some good results. School children received at least one square meal a day, dental and medical care were available to many for the first time, indoor plumbing was added to substandard housing. But nothing was done to change the root cause of the problem -- a multinational energy industry which owns most of the land in the region, takes out the coal, and leaves little in return save economic instability.
The Reagan years brought cutbacks in federal aid that hit Appalachia especially hard. Local school systems had become heavily dependent upon federal money because the state and counties have been unwilling to tax fairly the out-of-state corporations that own much of the land. School systems have laid off teachers, cut funds for libraries. Parents purchase basic materials like chalk and construction paper by holding bake sales. Meanwhile, miners' unions decline in influence, and the wealth of Appalachia continues to leave on coal trains. Nov. 2
In the wake of the October stock market crash, both the Reagan administration and the Democratic Congress insist on the need for more budget cuts. The market "demands" it, according to solemn television commentators, and I envision the market as a slavering beast, an ogre out of a tale from the Brothers Grimm, calling for the blood of an American. Arguments center around which social programs to slash, whose taxes should be raised. Nov. 6
Forest fires are so extensive in the central Appalachian region that a thick hazy cloud has blown to the northeast and darkened the air above the great seaboard cities.
My mail today brings an article on Appalachia's economic problems by John Gaventa, a sociology professor at the University of Tennessee. According to Gaventa, not only have past efforts to bring Appalachia into the economic mainstream failed, but "rather than the Americanization of Appalachia, we have seen the 'Appalachianization' of America." The heartland of America continues to face corporate land takeovers and high unemployment.
The latest issue of Newsweek brings tales of Wall Street traders weeping in the men's room, of Mercedes dealers losing business, of Piaget watches and diamond necklaces pawned in New York. Nov. 7
Afriend and I visit a flea market outside Paintsville, Ky. Over forty forest fires are still burning in the area. Helicopters fly overhead, hauling gargantuan buckets of water. The sky is still brown with smoke, eyes burn and stomachs turn queasy, flakes of ash settle on cars and trucks. Still, thousands of people wander through the 15-acre market -- couples, entire families dressed in worn blue jeans, polyester pants, boots.
We walk past portable tables of merchandise -- axe handles, dog collars, fancy belt buckles, pocket knives, fresh fruit and vegetables, plaster geese, sweat shirts ("Somebody in Kentucky Loves Me", "Whitesnake"), tennis shoes atop dusty boxes, battered plastic toys, cassette tapes (possibly bootlegged?) by Bruce Springsteen, John Cougar Mellencamp, Bill Monroe, a plethora of small-time gospel groups. On a shelf of land above the main market, men gather to examine hunting dogs and caged rabbits. Some have their guns with them, to swap, sell, or show off. A slow-walking elderly man ambles by with a new ax handle. He seems hardly able to walk, yet must still be able to chop wood.
It is fashionable now for fiction writers to produce spare short stories about working class people. Critics of such fiction respond with flippant remarks about the shallow lives of people who shop at K-Mart. I wonder what these critics would make of the people at the Paintsville flea market. What would they think of the plastic shoes, the piles of fake leather belts, of the dust which covers everything? Would they miss the dignity of the people who slowly file past the untidy tables?
My friend and I stop to admire baskets of red apples. They are priced by the bushel. What if we only want one a piece? we ask the farmer selling them. Take them, he says. They're free. Prettiest apples you'll see. We do as he says, feeling guilty. We eat the apples as we pass by a toy seller, where burly men in hunting caps buy plastic dumptrucks, destined to be presents from Santa Claus. Nov. 11
I hear of a Washington Post report that fire investigators are saying some of the forest fires were set by the unemployed so they can receive $3.50 per hour for firefighting.
In Kentucky, manmade fires are attributed to pyromaniacs, not the unemployed. Most eastern Kentuckians are law-abiding citizens, even those who struggle to feed their families. But no one could be blamed for appreciating the chance for employment which the fires provide. Unemployment here still reaches close to 20 percent. Nov. 12
Ihave come to the Mud Creek Clinic for a routine physical. Mud Creek is one of the success stories of the 1960s. A modern building located in a remote area, it offers affordable health care to people across the economic spectrum.
Patients at Mud Creek always have a long wait, so I pass the time talking to the director, Eula Hall. Once on welfare herself, she is the founder and driving force behind the clinic. I tell her about the article I am writing. She talks of patients scraping by on disability payments and being harassed by program administrators who think they ought to be able to find jobs. This in an area in which even the able-bodied have a hard time finding work.
Later I speak with Don Hall (no relation to Eula), who lives in a nearby trailer. He can't afford a car, so he often hangs around the clinic, one of his only sources of recreation. I think of stockbrokers in fashionable urban watering holes, worrying about how to make payments on a new BMW. I tell Don Hall about the article I am writing for the Post, ask if I may use his name. He looks confused, asks, "Will this get me car?" Nov. 23
Brenda Hall's husband (again, no relation to the other Halls) is a union coal miner at a small truck mine. For two and a half years he was out on selective strike, a tactic the United Miner Workers tried as a way to prevent all its members from walking out at contract time. The Halls lived on $200 a week in strike benefits. Brenda's husband has now worked for six months, but will probably be called out on strike in January when the UNWA contract expires. The coal industry has taken advantage of the last two contract expirations to gain more concessions from the miners. This time will be no different.
Brenda Hall is a cheerful woman, thin, tough and direct. Times are hard, she is quick to say, but there is nothing in her manner to inspire pity. At least her husband still has a job. Most miners in the area have been laid off and unemployment benefits ran out long ago. Families survive on food stamps, and help from extended family members. Union locals also help. "People here are strong, she says, "You're brought up hard and you work hard and appreciate what you have. As soon as the men are laid off they start thinking of ways to provide for their families."
What are the alternatives? Leave the resources the extended family provides and a rooted Appalachian home and try to find work elsewhere? How can you move if you can't sell your house? How can you move into a new line of work if you are in your forties, your fifties? The auto and steel industries that have traditionally employed Appalachian emigrants are still cutting jobs. How can you live on a minimum wage service job that provides teen-agers in other places with recreational money?
Some of the mines are closed forever. Unemployed men visit the sites, break down abandoned equipment and buildings and sell the material for scrap. Wives go to work in fast-food restaurants. And, of course, people pick up aluminum cans. It is enough, I reflect, to cause one to litter as a means of helping others.
What can be done? I ask Brenda Hall. She shakes her head. "We're so far back in these mountains. And outsiders own the coal companies." At least, she says, there is the union. "The union brings men closer together. They'll stand for what they believe in if somebody supports them."
In the meantime, she works for the union women's auxiliary, holding car washes and bake sales to provide Christmas presents and turkeys for needy families. A high school dropout, she passed the GED test fourteen years later and now teaches adult literacy classes two nights a week at a nearby school. "It feels good to see people learn to read," she says. If she realizes that literacy will not help her students find jobs, she doesn't say it. Their joy in new found knowledge is enough. Nov. 24
Today I attend the Land Reform Committee meeting of a citizen's activist organization, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KFTC). Many of those present are farmers and landowners whose land is being strip-mined without their permission, because coal companies own the mineral rights. The landowners pay taxes on their property, the companies get the coal, the landowners are left with rubble, scrub grass, and ruined water supplies. One committee member, Orris Little, says strip mining is drawing all the water from aquifers. "Thirty years from now, eastern Kentucky will be a desert," he predicts. This winter, KFTC will ask the Kentucky General Assembly to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot which would require a landowner's permission before property could be stripped.
Driving home from the meeting along a new four-lane highway, built to expedite the removal of coal by mammoth trucks, I notice the black layers exposed by the highway cuts. At one seam, people with picks and buckets are digging coal to heat their houses this winter. It is not their coal. Some unknown company owns it, will not mine it this close to the highway.
Farther along, a man has parked on the median between the lanes of traffic. Swaying coal trucks, traveling at sixty, seventy miles an hour, have scattered chunks of coal like bread crumbs tossed to birds. The battered cab of the man's pickup is filled with coal. He carries a bucket, his head down, glances up once to make sure my car is not too close to him, picks up all he will ever get of the region's departing wealth. Late December
Ihave been watching television previews of Oliver Stone's new film, "Wall Street." An earnest Charlie Sheen, playing a young stock-market star, justifies himself by declaring, "There's no nobility in poverty any more." This is the morality of the 1980s.
Christmas has come and gone. Throughout the mountains, community groups -- VFW posts, churches, union locals -- collected food and toys for the "underprivileged." Our American consciences decree that no one shall go hungry on Christmas Day. Parents with little or no money were saved from that condition of utter failure, the inability to provide a toy at Christmas. But these parents receive no recognition for the quiet, brave desperation in which they raise their children.
Now the new year is here, the financial markets continues to demand action from Washington and Washington continues to demand more sacrifices from people who have little to give.
Denise Giardina's novel, "Storming Heaven," was published this fall.