Sunday, August 14, 2016

West Virginia Hillbilly

I've been very impressed with JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, on the various talk shows he's appeared on lately. He speaks for a demographic which has been historically overlooked by both major parties. Since my own family background on my mother's side is straight up West Virginia Hillbilly, he speaks to my own kith and kin going back centuries. The good folks of Gassaway, West Virginia, a beautiful little town nestled in the hills of central WV, still have many of my relatives living there. My mom was born there, but my grandparents decided to leave town for NYC during the Great Depression so that they could start a new life and have opportunities that simply didn't exist in a small town hit hard by economic woes.

But it wasn't just economic issues which drove them to the big city. It was also cultural and very personal. They eloped because neither of their parents approved of their marriage (I have no idea why). West Virginians are very tight knit, but this also shows itself in splits and feuds which can last a very long time. And no, as far as I know, I don't have any Hatfield's or McCoy's in my family history! But I do have a distant cousin who was the 1924 Democratic nominee for President, John William Davis, who lost in an historic landslide. But the economy for the vast majority of West Virginians in the 1930's was grinding poverty, and sadly it's not a whole lot better even now all these decades later.

Back in the Spring of 2004 I drove from Holland, Michigan to Charlotte, North Carolina to consider attending Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary at their Charlotte campus. On the way back to Michigan that Monday I decided, last minute, to take a detour and drive up to Gassaway, West Virginia to visit my mom's home town. As I drove along the highway and stopped just before the appropriate exit, my lights shorted out, so I knew I'd have to stop at a repair shop in order to drive the rest of the way home to Michigan. So I drove into town and noticed along the side of the road election signs to my left and right with local candidates running for various offices and I also couldn't help but notice that many of the names on the signs were old family names that my mom and grandmother had told me about many times over. There were Bosley's, there were Lee's, there were Davis's, there were Dennison's, all names that I had been told about by my family, so I knew that I was driving into and through family, even though I'd never been there before.

When I finally got into town it looked like it hadn't changed in at least fifty years. I stopped at a little food mart and asked the young woman if they had a repair shop in town and she told me that they did and it was the only one. Thankfully it was a Pontiac repair shop and dealer, since that's what I was driving back then. So I dropped my car off and asked if the town had a library, and the receptionist, in her thick Hillbilly twang, told me that it was just down the road a bit, maybe a five minute walk. And so that's what I did during lunch when my car was being worked on. I visited the town library and did research on my family history going back to the Civil War. It turns out that family members fought on both sides of the Civil War. In fact, several family members were drafted by the Union Army at the beginning of the war but deserted and fought for the Confederacy. Bad move. There's a reason why the only hotel (long since closed and abandoned) in town is called the Lincoln Hotel and not the Davis Hotel.

In Gassaway, West Virginia, there's not many career options available for the people living there. At least back in my grandparent's day you could either be a coal miner, a lumberjack (two of my great grandfathers died doing that), a railroad man (my beloved grandfather Harry Goff Bosley was one), or a moonshiner (I'm sure some of my kin did that too!). And no matter which of these you did, you were damned proud of it. That's part of the Hillbilly way too. Pride in your heritage is part and parcel of what it means to be a "Red Neck" or a Hillbilly. My grandmother Ruth was Scotch-Irish through and through. But she was also a woman of the modern world who worked independently as a seamstress and dress maker while my grandpa worked for the NYC subway system.

But back to my car problems. I finished researching my family history in the town library and walked back to the repair shop wondering how much they were gonna get me for. I mean, I'm a Yankee from NYC after all in the middle of hillbilly country! I won't lie. I have my deep seated prejudices too. I could see, in my minds eye, some blind kid playing a banjo as I drove into town. But when I walked back into the shop and started chatting with the receptionist about my family ties with Gassaway, the owner of the shop walked in and asked me about my family. And when I started mentioned the names, he immediately said that many of those folks still lived in Gassaway. But when I mentioned the family name of Dennison, he looked at me in shock and said: "You're a Dennison?" I affirmed that yes, through my grandmother, that I am indeed a Dennison. He then laughed and said that the guy who repaired my car was a Dennison! He's a cousin of mine! I didn't even pay for the labor, only the fuse that was needed to get my lights working again.

I was kin!

Obviously I love telling this story to any and all friends of mine, since it shows how small our world can be if we dig deep enough. But my West Virginia Hillbilly heritage has its dark side too. Addiction is a major, multi-generational, problem throughout Appalachia. My family isn't exempt from that curse. I won't go into too many personal details here simply out of respect to many of my family members who have struggled with addiction and other mental health issues. But suffice it to say that these issues have run replete throughout my family going back many generations.