CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - A Trip Over the Mountains Always Ends Up in Crum

(06/25/2002)

By Jack Cawthon

I haven’t read John O’Brien’s book At Home in the Heart of Appalachia. I will do so eventually, but after rushing to read Tuesdays With Morrie and hearing Oprah’s book hyping for the housewives of America I have learned not to run with the pack after what “everyone” declares a winner. I’m sure O’Brien’s book, now in its third printing, is well written and for a first book by an “unknown” writer, which he calls himself, he has something to say that many need to hear.

It is those many whose identity bothers me. Are they natives or are they those who have discovered the state through accident or who have become established here either through purpose or an unkind fate?

O’Brien read from his book at our recent Golden Horseshoe reunion at Glenville State College. I was amused as he described the founding Horseshoe fraternity who followed, or more likely staggered, Governor Spotswood in the trek up the mountain. I had done a spoof in my column, but O’Brien’s account based on more researched reality than I had allowed followed pretty much the same unsteady path.

It was humorous to hear him describe the “gay” Englishmen, a quite proper description then before the word became corrupted with other usage, as they with a passel of servants toting the necessities such as camping equipment and booze, quite enough for survival in the wilderness provided one didn’t toast something continually, struggled upward. He wondered what the servants might be thinking about the whole thing, but as servants weren’t impressed to think, there is little information available to determine that.

That band of Englishmen did attain a summit where they supposedly looked over into present West Virginia-O’Brien thinks maybe Pendleton County but then he may be biased toward his home county-and surveyed the vista beyond. They then hit the booze and drank a toast to everyone then living or dead and somehow either staggered or rolled down the mountain back to homeland Virginia, pretty much in the fashion of football fans of today.

I would bet that there was more than one of them, the proof being in their spirits, who looked at that wilderness westward and calculated how much the timber if cut might be worth and who also pondered how many minerals might be found if only the mountaintops were removed and used as valley fill to make giant polo grounds for the romping of the rich and the famous.

Maybe one or two of them may have been farsighted enough to imagine huge fences built across the mouths of the deep hollers and armed guards patrolling the hilltops with vicious dogs encircling prisoners confined below, thereby seeing possibilities for the state that would only be realized recently when such rustic prison concepts have given way to multi-million dollar facilities for a home away from home for the wayward, while also providing for much-needed income potential for the penitential.

All of this speculation shouldn’t detract from the Golden Horseshoe award for West Virginia history achievement, as I know personally what that little token meant to me. It’s that sometimes history becomes perverted for a noble end cause, and I would gladly treasure my honor had it been, say, a Golden Doughnut.

But O’Brien wandered in his reading from a lark on the mountain into the quagmire of exploitation of the mountains. And it is here where I think the unknowing shake their heads, if they have heard if for the first time, and utter something to the effect of “those dirty rotten capitalists!” Yes, Virginia, we were screwed over by the coal and timber barons and the gas and oil monopolies, but hey, what are we going to do about it now at this late date? Maybe we should declare ourselves a Third World entity-there are those who have already dubbed us such-and confiscate the wealth for redistribution following such noble experiments as the USSR, China and Cuba. There must be better alternatives. Yeah, I know: Tax the suckers to death!

I don’t have an answer. I doubt if Mr. O’Brien has a good one either, and I don’t trust eager outsiders who always have one as they pass through our doors on their way to bigger and better upward mobility, leaving us with little more than their waste products, effluent of the affluent I call it.

Some of us who have spent our entire lives within the state-I’ve crossed the Ohio River a couple of times but scurried back in fright-either through lack of choice or obligation have found satisfying lives with the peace that can be found in those same bewildering mountains. Many of us have been contented with our heritage acquired through three or more generations. One of my greatest sorrows is to walk the old hillside land where my grandfather and my father grubbed their guts out to make a living knowing that I can now with but with considerable guilt feelings enjoy it in my leisure. I know where my heritage comes from but can I convey it properly to another generation? I doubt that any book can do that, and I think that after the hoopla dies down O’Brien will be left with the others before him telling a story with always a rather sad ending.

On the other hand, if you will permit me once again to mention THAT book, Crum has kicked around for ten years or more without anyone fully understanding it. And I predict it will confuse and bewilder readers in years to come. Like it or not, it is a book that will last.

In joining a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Larry Starcher, who was our keynote speaker, Maynard’s book came up. “Those things didn’t happen in Spencer when I was growing up,” I recall the good judge saying, and I think there was a wistful look in his eyes. I know there was in mine. The unanswered question that only Maynard and his shadow knows: Did they ever happen in Crum? The age-old subject of sex will still be with us long after the last mountaintop is removed, and many of us will be left feeling helpless in that we can’t do anything about either.


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