The Long Road to the Last Goodbye (part 3)

As inelegant as it is, here I must say that not all things are wrong. There are many hard and beautiful truths in a West Virginia life that other places may never know. I am reminded of the betrayals of a true love. Not much is lost when you never cared, but there is a unique pain in the infidelities of the one to whom you’ve given your heart.  West Virginia births and raises true loves. We don’t do things half-way or a little bit. We come out into this place like wires, connected, to a land of creeks and sky and hills. We hit the earth a part of it, and “mountain mama” is not just a line from a song. Whether we want to have this relationship or not, it is both a birthright and a burden.

I think again of my great-grandfather. What did Charles Edward grow up believing? I imagine he was like the rest of us. He grew up believing that that is a good place. He no doubt came into the world with a strong belief that the land around him was worth fighting for, that anyone who would disparage what West Virginia is would be easily and swiftly defeated. What he did not know, what none of us know at first, is that this place is a commodity to be traded, and that loyalty to this place is like falling in love with a hooker. That sounds terribly harsh, but I believe it is accurate.

Those in the know will tell you that despite the fantasy, no one sells their physical and spiritual self because they want to do it. They do it because the children are hungry. They do it for reasons that call out for solutions, and the way in which the terrible wants are met with resolution is not in question; at least not in the moment of decision and transaction. As a parent myself, I understand this on a fundamental level. There are some things I like to think I would never do, but I’ve held a screaming, hungry child. I know what it is to have every element of your responsibility and your future literally in your hands, and to have to make a decision about how to help. All morality and ethical consideration goes out the window, save the system you’ve inherited as a parent. That system says that the ends justify the means. Feeding and clothing and caring for your child is the only purpose you have, and the only bedrock principle of how you make decisions.

If West Virginia were a parent, would she struggle so? I wonder when I personify this place if it would trade its streams, its mountains, its communities for food for its young? And as I even ask the question, I know the answer as clear as anything I’ve never known. It is as simple as not wanting to know. Yes, she has sacrificed all of that. And like real human children do, we have learned from our mother’s example. Give in, give up, justify. Do whatever you have to do so that your children don’t go hungry. Don’t obsess or worry about the now, or even about the consequences of the now. Save the little ones, and forget yourself. Your only real purpose is to keep them alive.

Charles Edward had ten children and a wife to keep alive. Did he ever even have the time to wonder about the effects of coal mining on anyone but himself? He was a miner back in the days when men bent low and stayed low in the dark from dawn until night, chipping away at the rock walls of the mine shafts with hammers and chisels. They loaded chunks of coal into rail cars that followed them into the dark and that carried their treasure safely out into the daylight; they continued to strike the hard earth, in the dark. At one time there weren’t many jobs for a young Fayette County man that would allow him to feed ten children and a spouse. Mining coal developed a reputation for being the only work worth doing that even approached paying enough to feed a large family.

Of course, the coal industry rarely paid actual money. Miners were paid in scrip, a form of artificial money that could only be used to cover expenses at company stores. I don’t know for sure if Charles Edward was paid in scrip, but I imagine that at least part of his compensation came in this form. This kind of control over the fruits of a worker’s labor is one of the most notorious and detested parts of the coal industry legacy in West Virginia. After days of mind-numbing hacking at stone walls and hour upon hour of breathing filthy and even toxic air, a man’s paycheck still was not a moment of freedom. Your compensation was something you were privileged to hand right back to the company that kept you in dangerous conditions underground, and you were supposed to be grateful that they would take it back from you for whatever they could spare.

You were supposed to be glad that you had a job at all, and while this trite outlook always has some genuine truth to it, the sentiment behind it has not served my people well in West Virginia. The gratitude philosophy just dead ends into a stone wall. There is never been much public discourse about deserving better, and I ask silently if that is because there hasn’t been much private speech about it, either. Somewhere along the line, articulating wanting and deserving more became corrupted into being selfish and disdainful of this place. Layered decades of a mono-economy made any words against the one thing everyone believed mattered, the coal industry, into dangerous hate speech.

The UBB Anniversary: The Truth is Always Respectable

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in 7 years.”  — Mark Twain

Today is April 5, the first anniversary of the deaths of 29 men in a terrible coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

I honor the dead, and the families who mourn them; yet this post is not about that accident.  This post is about a question that the accident and its aftermath pose.  It is about something my father believes that I am not yet sure I do, and the anniversary of the UBB tragedy brings it again to the forefront of my thoughts.

“The truth is always respectable.”

My father is much more intelligent than the vast majority of people I know and even know of.   He is one of those “scary smart” men who can remember long chains of statistics, human connections, and historical sequences.  He is trained in the liberal arts and the law, has served in the army and the National Guard, endowed a prize in evidence at his law school and is intensely close to his God.   The fact that he is my father makes his stature even more awe-inspiring for me.  I listen when he speaks.  I take as pillars of my life some of his core tenets:

  • All things in moderation (If my father had to choose between Lost Horizon and the Bible for his one book on a desert island, I know he would struggle).
  • Your experience is the only experience you have; one always generalizes his or her own experience.
  • Never resist a generous impulse.
  • Fewer clothes in a marriage mean fewer arguments. (Note: I have been corrected since the original post, it’s not fewer arguments, it is arguments of shorter duration.  Got it.)
  • You can never see a great film too many times.
  • Butter is worth it.

This is just a sampler of his wisdom, but you get the idea.   The man knows what he’s talking about when he shares the wisdom of his over 80 years, and I pay attention.

That is why I am so troubled about my personal struggle with, “The truth is always respectable.”

Given the track record of how dad’s thinking turns out to be accurate I really wish this core idea were easier for me to understand.  I am still not there, and the UBB date on the calendar clouds things even more.

Evidence in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation turns up testimony that all of the men did not perish instantaneously as originally reported.  I remember the claim that no one survived the blast being quickly and widely disseminated to ease concern that the miners suffered.  Now we learn several men may have not been killed immediately, and that one man made valiant efforts to save his fellow  miners, only to have to retreat as his own oxygen supply dwindled to dangerously low levels.

When I learned this, honestly I was angry.  I was not angry at the now-alleged wrong information, I was angry that anyone thinks the families need to know that.  How horrific, to be maybe even healing a small amount, only to face renewed grief.  If someone I loved had been in that mine, I thought, just leave me in peace.  Let me have the only thing I can possibly have, and that is that he died without struggle or pain.  Let me move on, let my heart rest.

Then here comes this news…….and there is no rest for the hearts and minds of these families.  It feels so wrong, almost unethical to bring this to light if there is nothing that can be done but to hurt more.

But some time has gone by, and now I do more than just react to this terrible and seemingly pointless news.  I start to turn it around and reconfigure what it means to be devoted to knowing the truth.

If we say, either explicitly or implicitly through our responses to new information, “This is pointless and painful and you should never have told us,” what else are we saying?

We are saying it is acceptable to withhold information that might change future outcomes.

It is true that the terrible UBB explosion cannot be undone.  Those men are gone from this world forever, and their families and communities will never be the same.  But it is also true that large corporations (including the government) breathe a sigh of relief when we don’t make too much out of knowing what really goes on: who was lax, who made a serious error, who showed disdain for human life, who would just as soon deliver a modified story as the real one.

My conflict is with whether or not what the truth IS deserves respect.  That is what I usually hear when I hear, “The truth is always respectable.”  If it’s true that you cheated on a test, or lied to Congress, or abused a child, is that respectable?

No.  But making the reality of what you did available to yourself and to others who deserve to know is.  It’s more than respectable; it’s the only way anything gets any better over the long haul.

The real stories necessitate real change.  I want to put my head under a pillow so I can’t hear the real stories.  But hear them, and share them, and support them I must.

Dad, you did it again.  How do you do that?  I love you.

Image credit: EthioSun.com