Culture, Context and Chaos

muralMy daddy was a horse trader.

He knowed horse trading better than anyone.

I listen intently as the man begins to tell his story. It is Thursday night at the Beckley Moose Lodge. Folks are pulling out their billfolds to buy raffle tickets by the dozens. I am enjoying my plate of cabbage rolls and cobbler, and I need to order another beer.

Randy was doing all the talking, and I knew this was a conversation I needed to remember.

My days have become a patchwork of conversations, sewn together with smiles, head shakes and common threads. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, and I had a sense that Randy was curious about me.

I told him why I was living in Beckley. He proceeded to roll back the time, telling me about his years of driving truck and easing the belly of a colicky pony. Ya cut ’em just like that, he explained, as he moved his wrinkled finger across the roof of his mouth. Once they get a taste of their own blood, the worms have something to feed on, so the horse won’t roll over and twist a gut.

I push my plate of cabbage rolls to the side, convinced I am now done for the night.

coalbud2These are the stories I cherish, always from the gentle men of West Virginia. It seems like the men outnumber the women, and conversation flows freely.

It is new and different for me, so if I had a pen and paper for every conversation I had like this, I would fill up 3,000 spiral notebooks.

I love when these chance conversations occur. I enjoyed another one just the other day, after visiting the local eye doctor in town.

His office was on the other side of the consignment shop I visited a few weeks back. I was told that people come from different states to see him, so I knew he had to be good.

He greeted me with a wink and a wide grin. He was an older man that strangely resembled Norman Rockwell. His red cheeks were shiny like little red apples.

We like when a Buckeye comes in, he told me. I hear you’re from Cleveland!

Yep, I say. He began the exam.

Now. You see that big E?

E_chartHe points to the chart on the wall.

Yep, I say.

I call that the Ray Charles E, ‘cuz if you can’t see that, I would say you’re going blind!

I immediately start to laugh, giggle even, and he keeps me in that chair for oh, the next two hours.

He talks about Ben Franklin and the invention of the bifocals. He asks me if I know what else he invented. He paused a lot and scribbled some things on a notepad. He asked me more questions than 50 years of eye doctors, and I now know why people from all over come to see him.

As the letters get smaller, I begin to fail miserably at my exam.

Golly Moses, he says. You can’t see a lick out of that eye!

Yep, I say.

He asks if he can move the hair out of my eyes, just a sliver. He explains my astigmatism the best way he knows how.

potatoheadHe grabs an oversized eyeball that sits atop his desk. It sort of reminds me of a Mr. Potatohead with all the moving parts. He puts his hand on my knee, gently.

You see the way your kneecap is round just like that?

Yes, I say.

Your eyeball is pokin’ way outta there, just like your kneecap!

I settle back into his cushiony vinyl chair. I know my face is red because I can’t stop smiling at this gentle, sweet man.

He adjusts the equipment and flips the chart. I begin to see better again.

You’re acting like a big dog now, Buckeye. Now that’s a good girl!

I smile as I lean back. Mission accomplished, game over.

These are the conversations that carry me. I think about my time here, and when I do, my mind always comes back to these conversations, or the country songs I’ve never heard before. There are new Bible sayings I am intent on remembering, and I find myself just soaking it all in.

These are the things that keep me smiling about Appalachia. In my work-day world, my life is mired in poverty statistics and the people we ought to be caring for. At least I get to laugh once in awhile.

houseThe smiles don’t always seem to last. It seems there is always a fight here in the Mountain State. More than half of all children are low-income or living in poverty. Their moms and dads are not ready to give up on coal, even though coal value is plummeting and their neighbors are out of work. The coal barons are now bankrupt, but I see the coal miners in line at WalMart, buying milk for their grand babies. I watch them in line with their blue work pants and bright orange stripes, proud to be a dedicated part of the landscape. They keep the lights on America! with a smile and a wink, realizing they are grateful, but barely hanging on.

My six-month anniversary has passed and I wonder if I will ever shake the culture and the chaos. Say a prayer for the people of West Virginia. Say a prayer for the people who will never know what it’s like to live this way.