An Appalantic Conversation

On January 7, 1927, the first official Transatlantic phone call was made. W.S. Gifford called Sir Evelyn P. Murray. Gifford was from America and Murray was from Great Britain. The two exchanged their views with a goal to strengthen ties to friendship. Recently, a kind man named Christian from London messaged me on Facebook. Just to give you a perspective for how far away we are from each other, it’s about 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean. While he is in London and I am in Princeton, West Virginia, we have had several friendly conversations. What prompted him to message me in the first place was he saw a video the online newspaper The Guardian did that I was in. You can watch it for yourself with the following link:

Let me tell you a little bit about myself and Appalachia. Dirty, stupid, hick, redneck, poor, and holy roller. Those are just some of the words Appalachians can be called that people who don’t know us or disrespect us might spit out. I have been called these words myself. On top of being ridiculed, we are pressured to move. Some people say, “you should just move. Live somewhere else where life is easy and there’s more.” I struggle with entertaining the idea of leaving, but I also am proud of where I came from. I love the people and culture that’s in the hollers of southern WV. 

You see, I was raised in a holler. We lived in a valley surrounded by mountains. A gravel dirt road was in front of our house, not a paved asphalt road. Near where we lived, was a church, a Christian school with a separate building for a gym, and a bunch of close-knit loving neighbors. When I was a kid, my daddy taught me to fish, dig ginseng, and to love to learn. My mommy taught me to cook, make friends, and how to be pretty. Fun things I did when I was a kid was I walked by myself up to the mouth of the holler anytime I wanted. I sang songs to the animals and trees often. I sang in church too. Back then, I wasn’t scared of anything. Nobody who lived around us messed with my dad or our family.

Coal mining is a big part of the culture where I grew up. You got to have certain personality traits to go into a dark hole for 12 hours straight. You have to be able to pay attention and be aware of all of your senses all the time. Any mistake or one wrong move, can end your life or someone else’s in a second. The only light a person has while they are deep underground in a mountain is the one on top of their hat which sits on top of their head. People learn to be very disciplined and mostly quiet. Appalachians work hard every day of our lives. With the hard work our people do, we get tough. Toughness allows people to put on a hat and ride into a dark hole where each day could be your last.

I come from a long line of coal miners. One of my grandfather’s died when I was a toddler. Unfortunately, he got black lung. When I was very little, most people died of old age, but there were some who died way before their time. During my teenage years, the deaths escalated and became more often and younger. Car wrecks, alcohol, drugs, sickness, and murder are just some of the reasons why people died young. People I have gone to school with, have worked with, and even lived with have died young. 

Just to give you a snapshot of the most recent deaths: my former brother in law was shot and killed at the end of October 2018. Jason was 32 years old. Days later, another one of my brother in law’s Johnny felt the heartache of death. His brother Luke died. The brother was found dead after taking prescribed medications as prescribed with a stroke. He was a 42 year old Veteran. Days after that, a beloved friend JoJo died from a drug overdose at the age of 29. All of that happened in a span of two weeks. They died before Thanksgiving and Christmas of this past year. Their losses are felt and many hurt deeply in our communities. God bless their souls and give their families peace. I don’t know who I love will die next, but what I do know is I’m doing my best to help give people hope. I want us to feel alive and be happy again. Just because there’s not a lot of jobs, not a lot of money for people like me, and just because others may look down upon us, doesn’t mean that we can’t be happy.

Hopefully, you have some kind of compassionate picture in your head that matches my Appalachian perspective. Because Christian has been interested in learning more about Appalachians, we have connected. We have talked about food, music, education, and politics. We have shared with each other links to documentaries, movies, speeches, and songs. Also, we have discussed some of the similarities and differences of our lives. In addition, we have asked each other interesting questions. We have learned from each other and we have not even talked on the phone. Because of Christian, I have learned about the NHS, which is the National Health Service in the United Kingdom (U.K.). The NHS provides free health care for everyone in the UK. 

Christian told me, “It is absolutely free. You just go and see a doctor and there are no bills. It is paid for by the big pot of tax incomes. It’s the same for the homeless and the millionaires. It’s from the people and for the people. But, lately, the Tory (Conservative) government is trying to sell it off to private, (mainly American companies), which would stop it from being free. In order to make the NHS services worse so they can sell it off easier, there have been massive cuts to the NHS. Every hospital, every doctor, and every clinic are operated by the NHS. The good people working there are doing countless hours of overtime to keep it running, just to face more cuts by this inhumane government. Brexit will mean that the European Union (EU) laws which have protected the sellout of the NHS, will not protect it anymore.”

To compare, here in America, people are begging for Medicare for All to be the beginning of a universal health care system that all Americans would be able to use. To have Medicare for All, Americans would have to have pots of tax money from the people to be used for the people, like they do in the U.K. The problem is the billionaires, most millionaires, and large businesses are not paying hardly any money towards taxes, while the middle class, working class and lower income people are paying more than their fair share of taxes. The people who make the most money are paying the least in taxes, yet they are benefiting from the pots of money the rest of us pay into. To make matters worse, the people at the top are getting free stuff all the time, while the people at the bottom and middle are fighting for food, education, and basic resources like water.

For the past three years, I have volunteered to work with people in the town of O’Toole. That is a town near Gary in McDowell County, West Virginia. Due to a lack of some customers not paying their bills, the O’Toole Water Association cut off all of the residents hooked up to O’Toole’s water system.  With that being said, the water is dirty and contaminated, therefore residents struggle with not wanting to pay for water that causes them to get sick. When the water is cut off or the pressure of the water is turned down, it leaves people without any water to bathe, cook, drink or clean with for days. This has been a constant pattern for many years.  A local station just did an interview with some of the residents in February 2019. The people are oppressed and are in the low income bracket. They are on fixed incomes and cannot afford to be hooked up to a better water system, which the Gary Public Service District’s. You can read more about that with the following link:

On top of that, O’Toole’s water has been on a boil water advisory since 2002. People have suffered with having to use sewer contaminated water and have gotten infections. Sewer dumps into the creek and into the ground where the water comes out of and goes into residents faucets. Then, the contaminated water gets them ill. Why is it that nobody is helping us with this? Where is Erin Brockovich at when you need her? Hopefully, someone close to her will share this with her and Erin herself will see this and want to reach out. That is something I hope for.

People may think that putting in a good system is common sense, but common sense doesn’t call the shots in our state of West Virginia. At least not when it comes to who makes the decisions or who calls the shots for what is right and what is wrong for what to do with our state’s money. According to the reporter Caity Coyne from the West Virginia Gazette, it would take $17 billion dollars to put in a good working water system for the whole state of West Virginia. Read more with the following link:

Sadly, even if there was more money to pay for things we need, like the $17 billion needed for WV to have a decent water system, the people in power wouldn’t use the money for that. There is a disconnect between who the representatives are, what the needs of the people are, and there is a lack of accountability for how our money is spent. With O’Toole’s water situation and so many other rural towns, I think it’s better to do a public fundraiser to get the low-income people hooked up to Public Service District water, instead of only donating water. Please continue to donate water because the residents need clean water donated until they can get hooked up to a safer water system. 

Suffering often for basic necessities puts extra stress on people. Extra stress causes people to get sick more often. Getting sick causes death to come faster than it should. According to life expectancy studies, the people in McDowell County are dying on average, the youngest in America and people are dying even younger when compared to some third world countries. You can read more about that in the following link: 

A lot of my loved ones have died young.  Some people ask, “why is that?”  Well, it is because the people with the least are doing and giving the most while at the same time, they are stuck in a system that does not help them rise up. The system usually leaves out those who are not rich and essentially lots of people are just left behind. Also, if people do want to help, they do not know what to do. On top of that, there’s some governmental programs to help out, but those limited and scarce programs are not enough. With the programs that actually exist, most people who work for them are disconnected to the people they are supposed to serve.  They get paid an income commonly because they got a higher education. Ironically though, even if people with more education, get large amounts of grant money through organizations, somehow that money never makes it to McDowell County. 

To make matters worse, an interstate road has not made its way to connect McDowell County and that was promised to our people decades ago.  It was a false promise called “The King Coal Highway.” Here is a link to give you more information:  Since 2013, I have travelled all over West Virginia. I have visited surrounding states. I have seen for myself that the areas above and around southern WV have way more and access to much better things than people do here who live where I grew up. There is even a saying here where people factually joke that the state stops at Beckley, which means people living below Beckley have much less resources than those who live in Beckley and above.

The people in McDowell County have worked very hard to provide electricity to half of the world. The same can be said in lots of areas of southern West Virginia. That can be said for some of other states in the U.S. such as Kentucky and Wyoming.  The coal out of our Appalachian Mountains not only produces electricity, it produces steel. So, the big buildings, the high rises you see in the cities of Philadelphia, New York, California and even other countries, you all have benefited from our people and our mountains resources. Yet, many people suffer here to get water every day.

Instead of a water system, AND instead of a road to be paved to connect McDowell County to the rest of the state and world, billionaires and millionaires get tax breaks. At the same time, the billionaires and millionaires are usually in the elected seats of our government and they decide who gets what and how much of our tax money. Families in the other income brackets work hard, stay stressed and go without all the while mentally beating themselves down for not working hard enough or not getting a higher education. But, working hard and being educated isn’t getting my beloved state of West Virginia out of poverty is it? WV is now considered the poorest state in the United States of America. 

However, this so called “poor hick” of WV still has dreams. I have high hopes for West Virginians’ talents and creative abilities. We can write songs, tell stories and network with people from anywhere. We have kind hearts and we know how to treat people right. Down here, I have mountains all around me. Miraculously, because I started telling my truths, I got connected to more people locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally, like with Christian. Sitting in my living room on my couch, I can talk to 4,000 people at a time just posting to my Facebook page. Thank you Mark Zuckerberg! Social networking is huge part of my life.

I am so thankful for the conversation with Christian and his interest in Appalachia. We have discussed all of the things above and more. I think the more people that I can share Appalachian Culture with the better. We need friends in this world. Nobody can make it without help. Connecting with people like Christian has become a great joy for me. It has uplifted my spirit to share my culture with him and hear about his European perspective.