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Sunday, January 10. 2010
Our intertubes friend Right Wing Prof died on Thursday. He invited us to post this piece from him (which we did) in 2007 because he didn't think it fit the tone or purpose of his site -
Almost heaven, West Virginia
Our friend Right Wing Prof at Right Wing Nation is a guest author today. His reminiscence is about West Virginia, clans, ancestors, his youth, and snake-handling preachers.
You've probably never heard of the Big Sandy River, the tributary of the Ohio River that separates eastern Kentucky from western West Virginia. It's even less likely that you've heard of the Twelvepole Creek, also a tributary (well, if you can call a creek a tributary) of the Ohio, in the mountains of West Virginia, or Wayne, the largest town in Wayne County.
So let me take you there.
As the road takes you down the other side, though, you feel as if you are in a different community: The buildings on the back side of the mountain, deeper into Wayne County, are ramshackle, falling apart, very unlike the buildings on the front side and the top. Wayne feels almost like a movie set, presenting its best side to visitors from the city, and hiding its worst side behind the mountain.
My great-grandfather, Laban, was born here in East Lynn, three days before Jefferson Davis was elected president of the CSA. Laban was from a poor branch of a prestigious family (my great-great-great-grandfather was Henry Clay's first cousin), and he married Nancy Ellen, from a land-wealthy local family (the wealthier branches of the Clay family live in Kentucky). My great-grandfather was a schoolteacher (mathematics), but had been afflicted all his life with some sort of stomach problem. Somehow, he managed to talk his wife into leaving not only the clan, but the state, and moved his family to southern Indiana, where he believed the sulfur water springs would help his health problems.
I say "somehow" because my great-grandmother's family, while not odd for the area, requires explanation. They still live there, along the
Twelvepole and have expanded further north, past Shoals, about halfway between Huntington and Wayne, all the way north to the Wayne-Cabell county line. While they wouldn't be considered wealthy by national standards, they are by local standards. They own a great deal of land, and have been sending their children to college since my grandfather's day. I have kin on the faculty at Marshall and WVU, and kin who work as chemists and engineers in Charleston, but most still live with the clan in the mountains.
I say clan, because that's exactly what it is, and it's much like the
Hotel California: You can marry into the clan, but you can never marry
out of the clan. As I discovered a hundred years after my
great-grandfather left the clan, you are always considered to be part of the clan, no matter how long you've been gone, or whether they've met you.
The clan is matriarchal, but patrilineal. For the anthropologically
challenged, that means that a woman heads the clan, but familial descent is calculated through the father. So on the surface, they seem like a set of related families with different last names who all live in close proximity to one another, though they are really very unlike what most of us think of as American families.
That's because they aren't families, or rather, because the clan is the
important unit, and not the family. The matriarch wielded iron control
over the clan. No decision was made without her consent, and as far as I know, none is now. The clan put enormous pressure on its members to remain with the clan and not move away, and when they started sending their kids to college, this presented a problem. Huntington is within driving distance, and most of the professionals in the clan live along the Twelvepole and work in Huntington. Some broke away and moved elsewhere, such as Charleston, but as far as I know, my great-grandparents were the only ones to move so far that they could not visit every week, as even those who live as far away as Charleston do.
I knew my great-grandmother, who died when she was 98 years old. She was a tiny woman, only five feet tall, but very stern and steely, very much the stereotype of the Bible-thumping old-fashioned Presbyterian sort (Maggie Thatcher reminded me of my great-grandmother). She may have left the clan willingly, but not happily, I suspect. She was the oldest woman in her family, and next in line to become the matriarch. She rocked and quilted, and when she wasn't quilting, she was reading the Bible (and she despised my grandmother because they were too similar, but that's another story). I remember my grandfather saying that the one time she had to be hospitalized, he had to arrange the insurance behind her back because she believed insurance was government aid and she didn't believe in it. She threw away every Social Security check she got in the mail, which even my very conservative, very Republican grandfather though was crazy.
I only remember flashes from the trip I took with my grandparents and
great-grandmother to the Twelvepole, but I was only six years old. But even before the first trip down there I remembered, I knew several of my relatives from the clan because they had visited us. My grandparents make an annual pilgrimage as long as my great-grandmother was alive, but after she passed away, they only went every other year or so.
Because my father hated everybody in his family (and they him) and
because my paternal grandfather had moved there as an adult from
Missouri and I had no paternal kin there, I grew up thinking
predominantly of the clan as my famiy. Most Americans would not think people so distantly related as family, much less as their primary kin. I did.
My grandparents made no secret of the fact that they felt the clan were crazy--then, my grandfather had not grown up living with the clan, and I suspect my great-grandfather had better reasons for moving away than his stomach. Later in life, I came to think them a bit crazy myself (though I am reconsidering this opinion), but when I was young, I enjoyed the trips down into the mountains of West Virginia.
While we were there, every other sentence had something to do with
trying to get my grand-parents (and by extension, my parents and us) to move back to the Twelvepole, a century after my great-grandfather had been born. I was raised on a farm, and always loved the outdoors, and we had great fun riding horses, swimming and fishing in the Twelvepole, and hunting in the mountains. Of course, we did all these things back in Indiana too, but there was something special, something undisturbed and untamed about the Appalachians, and that made doing the same things special. The then-matriarch, my great-grandmother's niece, was a published poet and a great friend of JesseStuart (author of, among other things, Taps for Private Tussie), who I met on several trips.
She also had an adopted daughter, Mary Alice, and when I was perhaps ten years old, my grandparents were going out for the evening and dropped me off at Mary Alice's to take care of me while they were out. Although the clan was odd, most of my kin in it were not--well, it depends on how you look at it. They were engineers, chemists, Spanish and mathematics faculty, and schoolteachers. The odd part is that despite this, they lived deep in the mountains as part of a Scottish clan, as their ancestors had lived for many generations. But no, if you were to sit down and talk with any one of them, you wouldn't find him odd.
Except for Mary Alice and her husband, that is. Anybody would find
either of them odd. As soon as we had eaten, Mary Alice announced that we were going to church, piled us all into the station wagon, and headed up into the mountains.
You must understand that because my father was Catholic, I was raised Catholic (back then, the Church strongly disapproved of mixed marriages, and while my mother did not convert, she did sign a statement that we would be raised Catholic). The clan were Campbellites of one variety or another (Disciples of Christ, Christian Church Independent, and Church of Christ), except for Mary Alice and her family, although I ddin't know that at the time. We climbed a tiny road up the side of the mountain and parked in front of a small, whitewashed church that could have come out of any Appalachian movie set.
Campbellites broke away from Presbyterians (Scots-Irish, I said), and
are emphatically not holy rollers, not even the most conservative of
them. Being a Catholic from rural southern Indiana, I knew holy rollers
existed, but had no personal experience with them.
These, as I found, were holy rollers. I found it unsettling and strange,
but I was by no means traumatized. Well, I wasn't until the crowd in
front of me thinned enough (I was only about 10, so I was just a short
kid still) that I could see what was going on up in front. That's when I
bolted for the door.
These weren't your garden-variety holy rollers. They were snake
handlers. If you've never been to one of these churches, you probably
have a mistaken idea of what they do. There aren't one or two of them holding snakes up front. They don't just hold snakes; they dance with them, throw them into the air and catch them, lay them down and pick up more--but there is nothing ritualized about it. The front of the church was full of people, each with at least one and most more than one snake, dancing as the congration sang and clapped. There were a couple of men with mason jars, who turned them up and drank the contents (I later found out that the jars contained rattlesnake poison). There was a pile of snakes in front of the people at the front, and in fact, that was what caused me to bolt.
I have no irrational fear of snakes. I think snakes are kind of neat. I
grew up on a farm, and certainly around snakes, even venomous snakes (copperheads mostly, with some rattlers). But a big pile of
rattlesnakes? No thanks. I'm not fond of anything that can kill me,
unless it's in a cage or an aquarium, or I can get away from it. These
were loose, in a large pile, and they were mad--that's how I knew they were rattlesnakes.
First, Mary Alice, then her husband, then several other people in the
congregation came outside where I was and tried to talk me back inside. I'm sure they really did believe that I would burn in hell if I didn't return and had my best interests at heart, but no, sorry, I was not going back in there. So several hours later, the service was over, and we headed back down the mountain to Mary Alice's house. My grandparents showed up not long after we got back, and it's a good thing I didn't tell what had happened while they were there, or my grandmother would have surely killed Mary Alice (I know that because I did tell them what happened, after we left).
That, and when the horse stepped on my foot and broke it, are the two most vivid memories I have from those trips, though they are by no means the only ones. But for years, they colored my memories of those trips, and not in a good way.
I find that for some reason, I feel drawn to reconnect with the clan.
I'm not sure what it is. I suspect that part of it is the fact that I am
now the oldest living person in my immediate family. Part of it could
also be that I moved to Pennsylvania a couple of years ago and now live on a mountain ridge in the Alleghenies, and it's very reminiscent of
Oh, Pennsylvania isn't West Virginia. Yes, it's mountainous, but
Pennsylvania doesn't seem as wild and untamed, being covered with large dairy farms in the comparatively broad and shallow valleys. And the Appalachians are different there than they are here. There, the roads plummet into deep, narrow valleys at the feet of the mountains, but here we live in the ridge-and-valley Appalachians, where the moutains run in parallel ridges almost like corduroy, and the "valleys" in between are shallow depressions and not the deep valleys of West Virginia (in the West Virginia valleys, the mountains are up there, but here, they are over there). Yet, there are the similarities. I remember how, when we would travel to West Virginia, we would hear mine shift reports on the radio, and how vividly those trips came back to me when I heard mine shift reports on the radio here (both West Virginia and Pennsylvania are coal states). And Pennsylvania is beautiful, but in a more pastoral, bucolic sense than untouched West Virginia. It's also less Appalachian identified, and more 1776 identified (people here do not only Civil War re-enactments, but Revolutionary War re-enactments).
The impression that Pennsylvania is tame leads people to their deaths
here every year. The mountains here are just as wild as they are in West Virginia; the difference is the valleys in between. In West Virginia, the valleys are too steep and narrow to farm well, while here the valleys are shallow. We live outside a college town next to a couple of state parks, so there are hiking trails all over the mountains here, trails that draw people from out of state, and that's the problem. Every year, hikers disappear because they ignore the signs and wander off the path, I suppose thinking that they'll eventually stumble into somebody's front yard, and every spring, a few body parts are found by other hikers. We live on the shoulder of a ridge, and less than a half-mile away, the ridge rises sharply. Bears on the back porch, often after birdseed in the feeders, are a part of life here (and bears are the reason you can be fined by the township if you put your trash on the curb before nine pm of the evening before it's to be collected--one of the few nanny state laws I can support, since trash attracts bears, and bears are dangerous to the whole community). But there's something very familiar about living here that calls to mind the Twelvepole, and all those summers I spent hunting, fishing, and swimming in the mountains.
Perhaps one of these days, I'll drive to West Virginia and visit. I
doubt that I could ever tolerate living with the clan, but I need for
some reason to connect with them, to feel that I have connected, not
just with them, but with my past.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
Rightwing Prof guest-authoring at Maggie’s Farm has a tribute to West Virginia including discussion of the structure of Appalachian clans, ancestors (he had a really sound great grandmother), I remember my grandfather saying that the one time sh...
Weblog: Never Yet Melted
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ooohh--this looks wonderful. Going home to places of the heart! We are lucky RWP, we have a pretty place to go home to. There are millions, who do not have such. I look forward to reading about this windy road to your destination.
I have a comment about something else, and I will post it here. Hope you do not mind. But, it is something that has just chilled my blood.Finally. Finally, today I smelled it and heard it clearly enough to know what it is. I had first caught just a scent of it. It came on a soft breeze that brushed my cheek—then it was gone.
About a week later, it came again only this time the scent was a little stronger, but still I could not identify it. There are some who say they can smell snakes—I don’t know— I think I do every once in a while.
The first sound was that of tall grass rustling in the breeze. Then I heard them—the first animal sounds—something moving in the woods surrounding the house. Today, both the scent and the sound were finally strong enough to identify the beast. Today, I heard:
“Teachers must encourage their students to report their parent’s hate speech immediately.
When a child hears their parents using racist language, they must feel comfortable about
reporting that speech to their teachers, or other school authorities.”
Like I said, it took me a few weeks to identify this beast, but it is out there and . . .
Smelling the tail of the dragon...
It's those snakes the preachers handle that raised the issue.
My father is from Hinton, WV, in Summers County. Here are the county population stats:
Much of WV is the same. But is is beautiful country. Some pictures at http://don.ratcliffs.net/olivet/ , which is the history of the campground set up by my grandfather.
apple pie ... You are right to be horrified about that particular "beast" in the bushes. "Teachers must encourage their students to report their parents' hate speech immediately." Shades of Hitler's Germany. That's how it begins -- the whole ugly travesty, destroying the family trust structure, turning children against their parents, taking over the teaching of "moral behavior," as defined by *them*, clearing the way for dictatorship. I remember it well, from World War II. Today, people who have not studied World War II, or indeed, any world history in school, make casual references to Hitler without knowing what they are talking about. I remember it. They should study it. It is deeply dangerous and threatening to a free society.
Fascinating read for another Scots-Irish. It turns out we were, in some sense, related. My 5X-great grandfather was Henry Clay's Grandfather. I grew up in the mountains of North Alabama and, though I live in Minnesota now, my soul longs for the hills of home far more than I ever expected.
Thanks for the repost. Clay loved your site and recommended it often. It's nice to hear his voice again.
Takes me back. For several years back when coal prices were high (till 1982), I drove that highway through Wayne and East Lynn daily. Ate breakfast usually in the restaurant on the west side of the highway north of Wayne - Claybourne's ran it - great buscuits and gravy. Knew a bunch of folks there - Fry's, Perry's, Porter's.
My wife is a Flesher from Huntington, family originally from Lincoln Cty.
Very sad to hear of Rightwingprof's passing. I always enjoyed his writing, but his last pain-filled days were hard to read about. I pray for comfort for those who love him.
Readers of Maggie's Farm may like to know that RWP rejoined his ancestral clan. He returned to Wayne County, to be buried, and lies on a mountain ridge that looks out over a mist-filled, deep valley. God bless his memory.