Fly Away Home

I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, over four decades ago. Before I was fourteen years old, I had been to Bermuda, Quebec, Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. I attended college in North Carolina, and before I graduated I had back-packed Germany, Scotland, and England. I worked on Capitol Hill my first year out of college, and lived and worked in the international university community of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for 10 years before making a conscious choice to move back to West Virginia.

Simply put, I’m a big fan of West Virginians getting out before they lock it in.

I’ve puzzled for several years since my return over the hungry – yea, desperate – plea from some contingencies here to create an environment that children don’t leave. “If we only did this…….if we only changed that……if we had a…………then our kids wouldn’t have to leave home.” This is one of the most misguided philosophies I’ve ever encountered on two fronts.

First, kids are supposed to leave home. When you reduce it down to its barest elements, the whole ideal purpose of parenting is to raise children to a level of maturity where they can take care of themselves in their developing social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Even when children have special needs, there is a feeling that the maximum level of independence and autonomy possible should be the goal.  To suggest that there is something unnatural or undesirable about leaving the nest is a bit smothering and insecure. One of the best things that can happen to a young person is to explore the world on his or her own terms. Whether you grow up in West Virginia or Tuscany, you need to deliberately depart the confines of your small, childlike world, and put yourself in the environment of newness, diversity, challenge, and change.

Second, from an economic development standpoint, we need less a climate of existing jobs than a climate of innovation to draw the people our state needs to blossom now; and yet we still have a strong dialogue here that centers on former West Virginians coming “home” to fill job vacancies that await them. The people I have in mind that will come to make their lives in our state are looking for opportunity to build, create, and innovate. I am interested in the minds that seek an environment that supports new business creation, not simply seats for warm bodies.

I propose we give the clutching after our offspring a rest. Let’s stop worrying about getting former West Virginians back, and start strategizing about creating a place where smart, motivated people who have grown through diverse life experiences want to work and play. With all due respect to those of us who grew up here, our birth certificates do not automatically make us part of West Virginia’s bright future. What will make us part of that future is our willingness to engage the world; to embrace new people and cultural elements from outside our borders; and to stop asking for jobs and start making them.

Oh yes. And our willingness to kiss our children on the cheek and wish them well on their own journey to whatever place – maybe ultimately here – that creates a sense of home and identity for them and their best lives.

This post is adapted from the original composed for “A Better West Virginia Challenge.”

Image credit: Jamie Gaucher

A Long Walk in the Snow by Roger D. Johnson

I don’t know Roger Johnson, but he left this fascinating story as a “comment” on the blog A Better West Virginia.  I am not sure it is truly an essay, but it is an interesting story that raises questions about how adolescents make choices, how strangers change our destiny, and what it can be like to grow up in a place like the one and only West Virginia.

I hope to learn more about Mr. Johnson someday, but for now, please enjoy this reflection on how a young man’s life was saved one cold and wintry night by two coal miners who stopped to help.  Young people sometimes make bold decisions that later turn into life-threatening situations.  To me, this story speaks to the kind of people who make West Virginia a special place — people who know when and how to intervene, and who often just as quickly as they materialize disappear forever to remain mysterious and life-changing memories.

A Long Walk in the Snow

In the late Fall or early Winter of 1961 when I was a Junior at Nicholas County High School, my cousin, who was a Senior, and I caught a ride from Dille to Summersville to go to a basketball game at the high school.

We went to the game where he met his girl friend and I hooked up with a girl I knew. After the game we fooled around outside the old main building for an hour or so, then the girl I was with had to leave with her parents.

It was a warm night as we walked his girl home through town. Just outside of Summersville he told me to wait while he took her home down one of the side streets.

I waited for an hour and it was getting cold, so I started walking down the road. I figured he had decided to spent the night and I guessed I could catch a ride to Birch River. I was dressed in a light weight white coat with no hat and cheap shoes but it was getting colder and starting to rain lightly so I kept walking.

About midnight I was below Muddelty where there was a sawmill and a fire was burning in some old slabs. I walked in there and built up the fire. I sat on the ground as I warmed myself for about 30 minutes and began to doze off to sleep. As the rain turned to snow, I started getting home sick, knowing my Mom would be worrying about me.

I left the warm fire and walked down the middle of the road in a gently falling snow. By the time I reached the foot of Powell’s Mountain the road was covered with snow and I was pretty much soaked. It was a slow walk up the mountain and the snow was 6 or 8 inches when I reached the top.

Cold and tired I crawled in the old bus house that someone had turned over on it’s side. I was trying to decide whether to take the dirt road across the mountain to Dille. They now call that the Henry Young Memorial Highway. It was much closer to home but I knew it was wild with very few houses on the road.

Curled up in a cold ball in the bus house I was just going to sleep when I heard a truck coming up the hill from the direction of Muddelty. This was the first vehicle I had seen all the way from Summersville to the top of Powell’s Mountain. By the time I could crawl out of my shelter the truck had reach the top and pulled off right in front of me. I walked around and knock on the window of the drivers side. The poor driver nearly jumped out of his skin when he rolled down the window and saw me standing there in my white coat with ice crusted on my hair. “Where the hell did you come from?” he finally said.

The man who picked me up was on his way to work in the mines and said he pulled off to see how bad the road was before he went down the hill to Birch River. It was a slow slippery ride but I only cared about being in the warm truck. At Birch River he let me out on the corner because I was going to Dille and he was going to Tioga, I think. I never did get his name.

Slightly warmer, I stood there for half an hour before a car came along headed my way. I stuck out my thumb and another miner picked me up and took me all the way to my house. I walked up the hill in a foot of snow and into the house which was never locked. It was 4:30 in the morning.

Mom got up as soon as she heard me come in. She saw the shape I was in and put on a pot of coffee. While she found me dry clothes I drank two cups of hot coffee. I went to bed about 5:30 that morning and didn’t get up until the following morning. I had to go buy a new pair of shoes because there wasn’t any sole left on my old pair.

I thanked the 2 coal miners who gave me rides that long night but I have often wondered what would have happened if that man hadn’t pulled off before going on down Powell’s Mountain and I had gone to sleep in that old bus house.

I think my history would have ended at age 17.

Image credit:  Elizabeth Gaucher