Hometown Loyall-ty

I’m told that I had a bad upbringing.  Oh, no one says I had bad parents, mind you.  Nevertheless, I had it bad.  Why?  I grew up in Eastern Kentucky.  Apparently, that’s bad.

I’ve written about Eastern Kentucky before and probably will again.  I haven’t lived there in three decades, but it is as much a part of my life today as it was then.  It’s home.


I grew up in Loyall, Kentucky.  Here’s where Loyall is:


Exactly where is THAT?  As I told a guy who picked me up hitchhiking, it’s three miles outside Harlan, to which he responded “Where the hell is that?”  Harlan is the county seat of Harlan, County, Kentucky in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields.  When I was growing up, about 40,000 people lived in Harlan County.  Today, that number is closer to 30,000 and dwindling everyday.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

Aerial view of Loyall today.

The first thing to know is how to pronounce “Loyall.”  It’s not LOY-al, like the word “loyal.”  It’s kind of like “Lole.”  More accurately, it’s pronounced “Lowell” but without the “w.”

Harlan County is known for two things:  Coal mining and stone cold bad asses.  There’s not nearly as much mining  as there used to be and there never were as many bad asses as people thought.

Here’s what I can tell you about in which I was raised:

  • I always heard it was named after a railroad executive.  That might be true.
  • It had around 1,000 residents when I was a kid.  The welcome sign now says 776.  Frankly, that might be a bit of stretch.
  • Loyall consists of two parts:  Loyall and Old Loyall.  Old Loyall is exactly what it sounds like–the old part of Loyall.
  • The CSX Railroad Yard is in Old Loyall.  When I was kid it was the Louisville & Nashville Yard.  A lot of people in Loyall worked at the yard.
  • Trains ran day and night out of the yard hauling coal out of the county.
  • We had one traffic light.  It’s still there.
  • We had a full service gas station (long gone now).  They’d fill your car, clean your window and always ask:  “Check that oil for ya?”
  • We had a soda fountain, The Corner Store.  It sat on the corner, of course, by the traffic light.  They had fountain drinks and excellent hotdogs with chili.  They also had a pinball machine.
  • We had a movie theater until I was about 6 or 7.
  • We  had a barber, Gene Harber.  Very nice man.  He always asked “How do you want it?  ‘Bout the same?”
  • The Cumberland River ran through Loyall and washed us away in 1977.  Thanks to the largesse of the federal government, the river now runs through a man-made channel so it won’t flood.  Of course, they cut the town in half for that bit of high-tech engineering.
  • We had a school.  It was Loyall High School until the late ’60’s and then became Loyall Elementary and Junior High.   It still stands but hasn’t been a school for several years now.
  • We had a post office, City Hall, Fire Department and Chief of Police.
An artist's rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office.  This was done from an old photo.

An artist’s rendering of the Corner Store adorns my law office. This was done from an old photo.

In other words, it was Small Town, USA.  You knew your neighbors and lots of the folks in town.  We slept with the windows open and the doors unlocked.

I must confess that I was not raised within the city limits of Loyall.  I spend my first twelve years in Rio Vista, a neighborhood just outside Loyall.  I spend the last years on my childhood on Park Hill which overlooks Loyall.  Still, we thought of it as Loyall.

I lived in this house until I was 12.

I lived in this house until I was 12.


I thought it was a pretty good place, but I learned differently.  My first lesson was when I attended the University of Kentucky.  I talked funny.  Evidently, I had (and have) an accent.  That’s weird because I never noticed it.  I did know people at home with heavy accents, but I wasn’t one of them…or WAS I?  I was also a redneck, at least by Lexington standards.  Trust me on this one, but I was NOWHERE close to being a redneck by Harlan County standards.

I took a class at the University of Kentucky called “Appalachian History” or something like that.  It was taught by an odd fellow who had visited Harlan County on several occasions.  He had read Harry Caudill’s book Night Comes to the Cumberlands. He had been to Evarts (where my father grew up), which he pronounced EE-varts.  So, he was some kind of an expert.

I was told three things that I didn’t know:

  1. I was the victim of abusive Robber Barons who operated coal companies.  OR I was the victim of a well-meaning but misguided government which institutionalized poverty.  OR both.
  2. As a result, I lived in stifling poverty.
  3. It was likely that I was too ignorant to comprehend points 1 and 2.

I had a substandard education and health care.  Bad teeth, too.  Inadequate clothing.  Wow.  You’d think I would have noticed some of that, but I didn’t–maybe all the inbreeding made me less perceptive.

Later, after I graduated from the University of Kentucky with degrees in Finance and Law, I continued to learn about my homeland.  It was a bad, bad place.  Bad coal.  Bad government.  Bad drugs.  Bad, bad, bad.

Eastern Kentuckians, it seems, can’t take care of, or think for, themselves.  Others, though, can do it for them.  They need help.  Here’s why:

  1. Schools are horrible.
  2. Health care is horrible.
  3. Everyone is poor, even people with jobs.
  4. All the unemployed people are victims of something or other.
  5. Everyone is a drug addict.
  6. There is no drinking water.
  7. There are no roads that can be driven on.
  8. The people aren’t smart enough to know that they are unhappy.

Honest to God, it sounds like Somalia.  How the Hell did I survive?


Fortunately, I grew up in the Real World.  It wasn’t a perfect world, mind you, but it was far from what was (or is) portrayed.  Imagine if your hometown–whether small town or large city–were always portrayed according to lowest and worst performers.  I now live in Lexington, Kentucky, the self-proclaimed “Horse Capital of the World.”  We have about 300,000 people here, but it’s a college town at heart.  It’s a nice place to live, and I’ve enjoyed raising my family here.  We don’t promote Lexington by showing our homeless shelters, the rundown shotgun shacks that litter downtown, the hobo jungle or our public housing projects.  If we did, one would wonder why anyone would set foot here–except maybe for the horses who wouldn’t know any better.

I like Lexington, but honestly I don’t see it as being that much better than Harlan County.  Lexington has poor people–a lot of them.  Unlike my life in Harlan County, I don’t see them here.  They don’t live near me.  My kids might go to school with them, but they really don’t socialize with each other.  That’s just how works.  You won’t see Lexington’s homeless shelters, unless you go looking for them.  The last time I went to one of them, I saw two men I know–LIVING IN THE SHELTER!  I didn’t know anyone who was homeless in Loyall.

In Harlan County, there was no insulation.  Your friends might live in poverty.  I had a good friend who lived in a housing project.  Housing projects in Harlan County are no nicer than anywhere else.  His father was chronically unemployed.  It didn’t matter. We were friends. Same with my friend whose father was illiterate.  He was a good man.  He just couldn’t read and write at any functional level.  I don’t see that here in Lexington, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s well-hidden.

My friends’ parents included teachers, railroad workers, government workers, politicians, coal miners, coal operators, dentists, barbers, doctors, lawyers and just about every other walk of life in the mountains.  Both of my parents were college graduates.  That certainly was not common in those days, but I was hardly the only kid with that distinction.

Growing up, we lived like kids.  Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League Baseball, school, dances, romances, fights and all the rest.  I have raised two sons to adulthood and have been surprised how they occupied their time much like we did–chasing girls, hanging out with friends, watching TV, all the while complaining about having nothing to do.  Like my kids, we had all the teen angst that exists everywhere else–wanting to leave our small town, broken hearts, drinking, drugs and general teen mayhem.  We just happened to be in Harlan County while it was going on.

We played Little League in Harlan County.  Your author is on the front row, far left end.

We played Little League in Harlan County. Your author is on the front row, far left end.


There were plenty of people who had hard lives in Harlan County and elsewhere in the mountains.  Poverty and unemployment rates have always been high and, in the remote parts of the county, people could live bleak existences.

As far as I know, my parents weren’t related to each other.  I did know a guy who married his cousin, but I know someone who did that in Lexington, too.  That kind of thing is frowned upon everywhere.

Did I know people who didn’t have indoor plumbing?  Yep.  I had an uncle in Pike County, Kentucky who had an outdoor toilet until the mid-70’s. By the way, my wife’s grandparents had an outdoor toilet, too.  But they lived in Franklin County, Kentucky, home of our state capital.  That’s not as sensational as one in Harlan County.

Did I know people on food stamps?  Yes sir.  I also knew people whose only goal in life was to “draw a check,” our Harlan County way of saying that a person just wanted to be on the dole.  Some did. My Dad called them “people living off the grid.”   They were cautionary tales.

Did I know any criminals or, as we liked to say, “outlaws?”  You bet–a bunch of them, too.  My Dad had a friend who killed his own father-in-law.  The guy who lived across the road from us served time for attempted murder.  For a time, we lived next door to a notorious bootlegger. I knew a bunch of people who’d been shot.  Like I said, it’s a small place.  You don’t get to hide from people.

Some parts of our county were so remote that most Harlan Countians never saw them.  Jones Creek, Bailey’s Creek, Smith, Black Star, Holmes Mill and many such places were well off the beaten path.  Still, those folks went to church and school and had jobs–a good number of them, at least.

The funny thing, though, is that the overwhelming majority of folks I knew didn’t fit these extreme profiles.  Most people had jobs and took care of their families.  Some families, like mine, had two working parents.  Like parents everywhere, most wanted something better for their children and tried to help them.  It was nothing unusual, just typical American life.


Have things changed since I left Harlan County?  Of course. Time changes everything.  When I grew up, good jobs were fairly plentiful.  That’s not the case today.  The economic base in Eastern Kentucky is shrinking and may well not recover.  The population continues to decrease and is likely to drop precipitously as the Baby Boomers fade.  We didn’t have the prescription drug scourge that has devastated Eastern Kentucky in the past few years.  Regardless of the changes, on my frequent trips to the mountains, I see the same sorts of folks I knew growing up.  These aren’t characters from a Norman Rockwell painting nor are they the “salt of the Earth” or any other such overblown characterization.  They’re just good, solid people for the most part.  They don’t see themselves as victims nor are they trawling for handouts. They’re just living their lives as best they can.

I had an uncle who was fond of saying “Mountain people have mountain ways.”  He meant that there were certain things about life in the mountains that were different–and not always different “good.”  For instance, a lot of people threw their trash in the river.  If we had high water, you see it hanging in trees when the river receded.  We use to have a county trash dump on the side of mountain.  No, it wasn’t a landfill.  It was exactly what it was called–a big, stinking trash dump.  People would line up on the side of the road and shoot the rats.  It was really fun, but you don’t see that everywhere.

Now, as then, some people don’t take care of themselves or their families, either.  They don’t go to the doctor or dentist or do much else.  They pretty much live like their ancestors.  Some of us might  have called these folks “trash.”  I’ve never been any place in this country that doesn’t have its pockets of trash.

Of course, like anywhere else, some people are born into bad circumstances and struggle.  Sometimes, they can’t overcome that.  They aren’t bad people.  They just start life with two strikes against them.  That still happens.  Everywhere.

Are some of my memories skewed by the prism of nostalgia?  Of course.  My father used to rail against people talking about the “good old days.”  He would then talk about Harlan County in the 1930’s when he grew up.  He always concluded with “There were no good old days.”  Fortunately, I don’t have those memories.  I remember the good people and the nice life we had.  Like a lot of people, I didn’t appreciate it enough at the time and probably spent too much time wanting to “get out.”

You may have never been to Eastern Kentucky, and this may not make you want to even visit.  You may have lived there in tough times or under bad circumstances.  Maybe your memories are not fond.  Consider this:  People from every part of this country have the same experiences.  Perhaps we should condemn their culture or treat them all as victims.  I leave that to you.  All I can tell you is what happened to me and most of the people I knew.  We were alright.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

The Harlan County Way


I grew up in Eastern Kentucky–born and raised as we say. What is Eastern Kentucky? I guess you’d call it a region or sub-region of Central Appalachia. It is not, as you might think, simply the eastern half of the great Commonwealth of Kentucky. Here’s my personal map of the area:


This seemingly random boundary results in some folks calling it Southeastern Kentucky which, geographically speaking, is more accurate. A few notes:

  • We can’t include any counties on the Ohio River. They aren’t isolated enough. This excludes Boyd, Greenup, Lewis, etc.
  • I-64 runs through Montgomery, Bath, Rowan and Carter Counties. Again, they are excluded because of lack of isolation. Elliott County is an exception because–well–you just have to visit there to see.
  • Once you push too far north, you get out of the mountains, and we have to exclude you. Goodbye Fleming, Nicholas and Robertson Counties. Robertson County is the toughest to exclude. It definitely has an Eastern Kentucky feel to it, but it’s out.

The qualifications for Eastern Kentucky status include:

  • Mountains. You have to have mountains, not hills. Fleming County has beautiful, rolling hills, but they aren’t mountains.
  • Isolation. It has to be kind of tough to get there or at the very least it’s just on the way to somewhere else. Rarely is an Eastern Kentucky county a destination. On this criterion, Robertson County would qualify, but again, it’s just too far north.
  • Coal Mining. You need some coal mines, either now or in the past. We’re from coal mining stock.
  • Accents. You have to sound like us. Now, people in Carter County pretty much sound like us, but they have that Interstate.

I hail from Harlan County, the Eastern Kentuckiest of all counties. We’re isolated. Very isolated. Harlan County is not on the way to anywhere. If you need to go someplace that can be accessed through Harlan County, I guarantee that there’s an easier, quicker way to get there. Harlan–that’s what we call it–isn’t a destination, either. There aren’t any hotels to speak of, really. No Holiday Inn Express, Hampton Inn, etc. There are a couple of places to stay, and they’re okay. If you’re spending the night in Harlan, you probably have family there anyway.

We have mountains all around us.  We’re hemmed in.  We mine coal and have for over 100 years.  We also have accents, heavy mountain accents–the kind that can be indecipherable even to natives of the area.

I don’t live in Harlan now, but I’m still a Harlan Countian. Always.  So, I speak of how it was 30 years ago.  One of the great things about Harlan is that changes very little.  It’s still pretty much the same.

Now, don’t confuse Harlan County with the town of Harlan, our county seat. If someone tells you that he or she is from Harlan, they could mean any town from Pathfork to Holmes Mill to Cumberland to Cranks. Only if we’re talking to another Harlan Countian would we narrow the description to the town. Myself, I’m from Loyall which is three miles from the town of Harlan.


I’ll say I’m from Harlan, but don’t get confused. I’m from Loyall.

Unless you lived in the town of Harlan, you don’t go to the “city” schools–Harlan High Elementary and Harlan High School. I attended Loyall Elementary and Junior High and James A. Cawood High School. Cawood was named after James A. Cawood, long time Superintendent of the Harlan County Schools. None of my schools still exist. Now kids go to Harlan County High School which consumed Cawood, Evarts and Cumberland High Schools. We used to be territorial based on our schools. When we went to high school, we identified as being from Loyall or Hall or Wallins. We rarely hung out with anyone from Evarts or Cumberland–in those days, they had their own high schools. They might as well have been in different states.


The vast majority of Harlan Countians are proud to be from Harlan. We are our own world. We like that it’s called Bloody Harlan by some folks even though that name is based upon events which occurred 70 years ago. Bloody Harlan is just badass. We like being the badasses of Eastern Kentucky.


Your author proudly claims his heritage.

Many people watch the FX series Justified. Justified portrays Harlan as a lawless frontier of wanton violence. Harlan Countians like Justified. We like people to think we’d kill them for some trivial reason.

Before Justified, many people got their image of Harlan from the award-winning documentary Harlan County USA which followed the Eastover coal mine strike at Brookside, Kentucky. Harlan County USA divides us into two groups: Those that love it and those that hate it. The ones who love it love the depiction of rough and ready union brothers and sisters ready to wage war with the coal company thugs. The rest of us (that includes me) hate the image of Harlan Countians as violent, uneducated hooligans. They point to the many fine folks in the county who were (and still are) horrified by the goings on at Eastover. The truth, of course, probably lies somewhere in the middle. The folks in Brookside were surely Harlan Countians as was the chief gun “thug,” Basil Collins. Basil was a neighbor of ours when I was a kid, so I know he was real. My mother drove through Brookside to go to work every day, so I also know the strike was real.  Harlan has always been divided into pro- and anti-union.  It still is in some ways, although it has been many years since the United Mine Workers Association held great sway.

That bastion of journalism, Hustler Magazine, once listed Harlan (the town) as one the three meanest towns in America. It was described as a place where people only smiled when they heard that someone had died. Harlan Countians did not like that. Not at all. I suspect it’s mostly because they didn’t care much for Hustler, at least not publicly.

Overall, we like the stereotypical portrayal of Harlan. Harlan is tough. Harlan is mean. Harlan is total badass.

Growing up, I didn’t feel particularly tough. Then, I moved to Lexington, Kentucky and found out that I was pretty tough by Lexington standards. For instance, threats didn’t faze me. I knew that truly dangerous people don’t threaten much. They just inflict harm. Of course, there’s a downside.  A mouthy little man like me finds out the hard way that bad is good, but big is better.  Bad and small isn’t a recipe for success.


Who are the Harlan Countians? Besides the accident of birth, we have certain commonalities:

  • We know that houses have winders and chimleys
  • We mispronounce light, fight, white and night.
  • We all know someone named Lonzo.
  • We have accents which are obscured by our penchant for mumbling.
  • We know at least one person who has been shot with a gun by someone else or by themselves accidentally.
  • We own guns.
  • We are related to at least one coal miner.
  • We say Papaw and Mamaw.
  • We know trash when we see it, and I’m not talking about garbage pick up.
  • We know at least one person whose mother was really their grandmother, and sister was their mother. Trust me on this one.

Harlan Countians can be found everywhere. Who are we?

  • The Stalwarts

These are the folks who stayed in Harlan. They are either Harlan by birth or moved there at a young age. They might have gone to college or joined the military. Regardless, they came back. Maybe they never left.

These are small town people just like in every small town. Small town life can be hard or easy. If it’s hard, it’s hopeless. If it’s easy, there’s nothing better. In that regard, Harlan is Small Town, USA. There are doctors, lawyers, accountants, teachers, coaches, laborers, deadbeats and criminals. There are good people and bad people. Like anywhere else, you have to hope to you don’t cross paths with the bad ones at the wrong time.

Among this crowd are those that my father called “off the grid.” He said we had a sub-culture of people “so far off the creek” that they weren’t plugged in to the modern world. That is certainly true, but I must say that those unfortunates (if that’s what they are) are the in minority.. They may be from such places as Shields, Jones Creek, Smith, Cranks, Punkin Center or Happy Top, although I can name you folks from all those places who have done quite well for themselves.

Harlan is no more defined by any subculture than Chicago should be defined by its sad history of public housing or New York by the worst of its slums. Yes, we have folks living in poverty–too many (as though there is an acceptable level of suffering) but most folks live just fine.

My parents were stalwarts. My Dad was born in Evarts and–expect for military service and college–never lived anywhere else. My mother moved to Harlan County from Pike County at around age 12 and never left except to attend college. They had no desire to ever live anywhere else. And they didn’t.

  • The Outlanders

I am an outlander. An outlander is someone who used to live in Harlan. We’re still Harlan Countians. We just live somewhere else. There are a lot of us spread over the country, but we still think of ourselves as being from Harlan. I haven’t lived in Harlan in 30 year, but if someone asks where I’m from, “Harlan” is the immediate response.

Some are like me. I went to college and had personal and professional opportunities that pulled me away. Others leave to find better opportunities.

We outlanders like our Harlan roots. It’s a kind of mountain street cred. If we meet anyone else from Eastern Kentucky, we can get instant acceptance with a simple “I grew up in Harlan.” Translation: “Despite appearances, I will kill you if necessary. So, watch your step.  I’d hate to have to kill you.  Just kidding–about the ‘hate’ part. I am a badass.”

  • The Pretenders

There are people who will pretend to be from Harlan or any place else in Eastern Kentucky. That’s right–they’ll pretend. They have cousins or in-laws or remote ancestors who hailed from the mountains. This, so they say, makes them mountain people. Of course, it doesn’t. We laugh at them but let them have their fun. They’re usually the folks who dream of turning all of Eastern Kentucky into a massive tourist destination by having all the people who live there pack up and move. Then, they can come back and pay admission to see where they used to live.

Sometimes, these people would show up to help us.  We were always suspicious of outsiders, especially those offering “help.”  We could tell if you were from Ohio or Michigan or some other exotic place.  You talked funny.  You weren’t one of us.  Go help someone else.

  • The Loathers

These folks are Harlan Countians, but they don’t like it. They might even live in Harlan, but it doesn’t suit them. It’s too dull. It’s boring. There’s nothing to do. There’s no future. It’s bleak. But they don’t always leave. They just hang around and complain.  Most of us pass through this phase at some point.  Many never leave it.

Some of these folks do leave Harlan–a lot of them, in fact. They go to other parts of the state or country and live as ex-Harlan Countians. They don’t like being from Harlan. They don’t want to sound like Harlan or look like Harlan. They pity Harlan. They know what’s best for Harlan, though, and won’t hesitate to tell you. Even though they know what’s best for Harlan, we don’t really like them.


My children are fascinated and perhaps slightly horrified that I grew up in Harlan. Even though they have visited my homeland many times, they remain baffled by it.

Even though I haven’t lived there in many years, I still visit.  I’m fortunate that my job regularly takes me to Eastern Kentucky. Harlan is quiet, unless you grew up near the railroad tracks like I did. Then it was quiet except when the trains ran, which seemed like every 15 minutes or so.

Loyall had a school, a railroad yard, one stop light, a movie theater (at one time), the Corner Store (a genuine soda shop), a gas station, a barber and a couple of stores. A convenient store replaced the gas station and stores.  The school closed. All that’s left is the yard and that light.   We had our own post office, City Hall and fire station. They’re still there.   About 1,000 people lived there when I was a kid.  Maybe 700 or so now.  It was quiet then.  It’s quiet now.

We once had a train full of nerve gas pass through Loyall.  People gathered at the railroad tracks to watch it.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe they were hoping to see (or experience) some kind of catastrophe. Maybe they just didn’t have much else to do.

Sometimes you hear gun fire in the distance, but that’s in the woods. There aren’t running gun battles anymore like the famed Battle of Evarts many decades ago.  Oh, people still get shot occasionally but at much lower rate than we’d like you to believe.

The county is big, about 50 miles across, but sparsely populated. Like much of Eastern Kentucky, the population has declined for decades.  One can argue that it’s always been over-populated what with the chronic high unemployment and high poverty rate.

The “first of the month” is a big time in Harlan. That’s when people get their checks. Government checks. Disability checks. Welfare checks. Food stamps, too. Town is flooded with people. When I was young, the Government Cheese truck looked like a scene from an African relief mission. People were practically hanging on it. Although we certainly weren’t poor, Government Cheese is excellent, and my Dad would get us a block whenever he could. I miss Government Cheese.

We only periodically had a movie theater, the fabulous Margie Grand in Harlan. It would occasionally be condemned but re-open at some point. It was an old theater whose best days had long past. Plaster would fall from the ceiling and you could throw popcorn on the stage in front of the screen and watch the rats scurry out to eat. It was tough to find two functioning seats together. It reeked of Pine Sol. It was a movie experience like no other. Sometimes, the film would jam and you could watch it melt.  It even had an old balcony where–rumor had it–black folks used to be seated. Loyall also had a theater–the Roaden–until I was about 6 years old. For many years now, Harlan has had a multi-screen cinema. Sweet.

Mostly, we didn’t do much, because there wasn’t much to do. Oh, you might go to Gary’s Lounge and Roller Rink sometimes. Gary’s was a fun place. One side was a roller rink. The other side was the Lounge, a long, narrow open room with a dance floor. A friend of mine once drank a beer from a girl’s cowboy boot at the Lounge. You don’t see that every day.

Mostly, we just hung out. Funny thing is, that’s what my kids do, even though they live in a small city with a million things to do. I guess teenagers everywhere just hang out. Oh, and we moaned and complained about not having anything to do. My kids do that, too.


When I went to college, I befriended other Eastern Kentuckians. One guy said we were like Indians who left the reservation. Even though I had been lots of places, leaving Harlan took me out of my comfort zone. Honestly, it took me years to adapt. I went from a county of about 35,000 people spread over 1,000 square miles to a campus of 20,000 + crammed into a few blocks. No wonder I was overwhelmed.

Since I’ve been gone, Harlan–like all of Eastern Kentucky–has been devastated by prescription drug abuse. We didn’t have that problem when I lived there. If we had a problem like that today in my slice of Suburbia, there would be a full-blown panic. Now, sadly, it’s a way of life in the mountains.

Coal mining runs in cycles.  Right now, it’s in a big down turn.  That hurts everyone.

There is a bleak side to Harlan, as anywhere else. Like inner cities, there are generations locked into a poverty cycle. Some escape, but most don’t. There has always been tension between those who work and those who don’t or won’t. Nothing will get a hard-working coal miner or school teacher fired up like a discussion about those “drawing a check.”  That’s how it was when I was a kid, and it hasn’t changed.

We also suffer from stereotyping.  Our teeth aren’t all that bad, although mine aren’t great.  We didn’t all drink Mountain Dew as babies.  I’ve never known anyone who didn’t wear shoes–and I knew some pretty rough characters.  I knew no one married to his own sister and just a handful married to their cousins.

We’re also the last of a breed–and this applies to all of Appalachia. We’re the last group that can openly derided.  We can be called ignorant, inbred, genetically inferior, toothless, shoeless–you name it.  If you do so, you won’t be called a bigot or a phobe of any type.  You might even become a best-selling author or reality TV producer.

My life is very much divided into two parts–before and after Harlan.  Now, far in the past, at least until I visit.  Give me about 30 minutes, and it’s like I never left.  That’s pretty cool.

If you live in Harlan, I can’t say that I blame you. If you don’t, I can’t fault you for that, either. It’s a nice place. Different, but nice. If you don’t believe me, I just might have to kill you.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2013

Friend of Coal

I like coal.  I like the coal industry.  I like the people in the coal industry, all the way from the belt muckers to the CEOs.  Full disclosure requires that I tell you that I work in the coal industry myself.  So did my father.  My grandfathers and other relatives were coal miners.  I grew up in Harlan County, Kentucky, the heart of the Kentucky coal fields.  So, if you think I’m biased, I probably am.

I’m not going to wear you out with numbers.  I could fill this post with statistics about electrical generation and steel production, cheap utility rates and job statistics.  If you support coal, you’ll cheer.  If you’re a coal hater (and there are plenty), you’ll just cluck your tongue and talk about how the miners are too ignorant to know what’s best for them or you’ll quote other numbers about how much greater the cost is than the benefit.  My purpose is not to persuade you to embrace the industry anymore than I would think I could make you change religions in a 2,000 word blog post.  That is beyond my powers of persuasion.

This is simply to say my piece about an industry that is bruised, battered and under constant attack.  I’m neither defensive about, nor ashamed of, the coal industry.  Here’s why:


I like coal miners.  They’re good folks to deal with and fun to be around.  They’re irreverent and funny.  They’re also admirable.  They work difficult jobs under tough working conditions.  Nevertheless, they take great pride in what they do and most really enjoy their work.  Don’t get me wrong–they view it as work, hard work in fact.

Imagine going underground 2 or 3 miles to go to work in a honeycombed, man-made cave.  When you arrive at your work site, the area is dark, and you don’t have enough room to stand up.  Add to that close confines with powerful, mechanized equipment.  It’s tough work, no doubt.

Yes, the hours are long and the conditions are tough, but this isn’t the 1930’s.  Miners are paid well, whether they are in unions or not.  Coal mines are safer now than ever before, although they are not without risks.  Whether you’re a farmer, truck driver, fisherman or a miner, any time human beings work in close proximity to powerful equipment, there are dangers.  The nature of my job brings me into situations where they are mine accidents.  I get to see the pain and grief up close with serious accidents.  If you believe that no one cares, you’re wrong.

It’s always in vogue to patronize so-called blue-collar workers as being the back bone of America or the salt of the Earth or some such other hollow praise.  Miners are like everyone else.  Some aren’t so good at what they do or don’t work hard.  That’s human nature.  On the whole, however, miners impress me with not only their work ethic but their skill in doing their jobs.

Whatever your job, imagine being expected to know the details of hundreds of government regulations.  Everyone in your workplace from the custodian to the CEO is expected to know these rules.  Everyday, someone from the government walks around your office making sure that you comply with these rules.  Everything from lack of hand soap in the restroom to life-threatening dangers will be examined.  Every misstep will cost your employer money.  The pressures are daunting.  This is part of the daily grind of a coal miner, too.

If your image of a miner is walking to work with a pick and shovel, you’re behind the times.  They don’t get paid by the ton anymore, either.  They’re not being randomly attacked by company thugs.  If you want to know what those days were like, read Harlan Miners Speak compiled by something called “The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners” in 1932.  Like any industry, today’s coal business bears little resemblance to the world of 80 years ago.

Nevertheless, these are hard jobs.  Yet, these men–and women, too–gladly go to work every day.  They are glad to have their jobs.  They don’t take them for granted, either.  Like I said, it’s admirable.  I like these folks.


I also like Eastern Kentucky.  Now, maybe that’s because I grew up there.  Like most small town people who left home, I’ve grown more fond of my home town over the years.  We may see the end of mining in my lifetime.  That will be a sad day for my people.

The coal haters will tell you I’m wrong.  The poor, ignorant mountain people don’t that they’re better off without coal.  Coal is bad and is to blame for all the woes known to the mountains.  Bad schools, bad roads, bad health. Bad coal.  These folks will tell you that if we can just preserve the beauty of the mountains, everyone will be okay.  Goodbye coal.  Hello, Utopia.

Reality, of course, won’t be like that.  When coal is gone, the people will follow.  The industrial base will be gone.  The mountains don’t support farmers or any other industry.  While the Federal Government has spent billions providing aid to the poor, the infrastructure, such as it is, has been ignored.  Money which could have provided modern highways, sewers and water systems, instead  went to fight the War on Poverty.  If there had, in fact, been such a war, Poverty would have won in a blood bath.  Now, we have a drug problem in the mountains that rivals anything in the inner cities.  The answer, of course, is less income, a lower tax base and decreased population.  If anyone proposed that solution for America’s inner cities, he or she would be accused of genocide.

So, the mountains will be pristine.  Perhaps, the former residents can visit from time to time.  But, if anyone believes that life will be grand and everyone will just move on to something better, it won’t happen.  Try to find a job in Eastern Kentucky paying $60,000 to $70,000 a year.  Miners make that kind of money.  For families that have struggled, that can change lives.

I take great umbrage at people who imply that Eastern Kentucky is hell hole.  Small towns there are like small towns anywhere else.  Everyone knows your business.  Life is slow.  It’s easy for some people and a dead-end for others.

The coal fields should be in charge of their own future. Eastern Kentuckians are not simple-minded children who need to be told what is best for them.  Every coal company I know, regardless of ownership, employs people from its area.  Local people who have pride in what they do.  They aren’t ashamed of it and don’t need to be told they’re wrong.  Leave them alone.


We have a newspaper in Lexington, Kentucky–The Lexington Herald-Leader.  It’s owned by The McClatchy Company, which is based in Sacramento, California.  Over the past few years, the Herald has laid off employees in Lexington and basically run the paper like its number one priority is to make a profit.  Rarely a week passes without the Herald running some ill-tempered screed about “King Coal,” decrying its absentee owners and that the industry is profit-driven. These are often accompanied by sophomoric editorial cartoons as humorous as a truck load of dead babies.  If the Herald’s editorial board and absentee owners see the irony, they certainly never acknowledge it.  For our paper, there is no greater villain than King Coal.  Every political or legal defeat for the coal industry is trumpeted like the polio vaccine.  One wonders if newspapers in the Detroit area react with glee when there is bad news for the automobile industry.

Coal loses the PR war and increasingly the political war, too.  I dare not bore you with the details of all the wrong-headed regulatory pressure brought to bear on coal over the last few years.  Suffice to say that President Obama has followed through on his promise to bankrupt anyone who wants to burn coal.  While the President may be subject to legitimate criticism for not following through on campaign promises, this is one that he has embraced with a vengeance.  When he hasn’t been able to get the legislation he wants, his appointed policy wonks simply decree the changes.  For example, his ill-conceived “Cap and Trade” law was never passed.  Incredibly, this law–designed to end coal consumption–was actually supported  by Kentucky Congressmen.  Not to be undone by this defeat, the Environmental Protection Agency has promulgated regulations with the same goal in mind–the end of coal consumption in the United States.

All this redoubles my support of coal.  Nothing gets my back up like fighting the power.  Something or someone has to be willing to stand between the government and private citizens.  Make no mistake–coal companies are made up of people.  CEOs, attorneys, accountants, superintendents, foremen, scoop operators, miner men, roof bolters, electricians and belt muckers.  Believe it or not, these are people.  When a coal mine closes–which is happening more and more frequently–lives are affected. Some are devastated.

As matters now stands, our government has decided–through appointed bureaucrats–that power plants must reduce certain emissions within the next few years.  These bureaucrats know that coal-fired plants cannot meet these requirements.  The plan is to take coal out of the market.  This isn’t okay with me.

But, what of renewable energy, windmills and solar and the like?  I have nothing against renewable energy.  Nothing.  Bring it into the market now.  Today.  Create all the “green” jobs possible.  Bring them to Eastern Kentucky.  Today.  If the market responds to these alternatives, there will be a place for them.  The United States produces 4,500 BILLION kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.  There is plenty of room in the marketplace.

The problem, and it’s a big one, is that there is no market for these alternatives.  This, I believe, is the reason that Obama wants coal driven from the market.  Get the cheapest, best fuel OUT of the way, and there will be room for less efficient, less marketable alternatives.

I rarely expound on my political views, mostly because it’s a personal matter, but also because I don’t think my  opinion will change yours.  As I said, that’s not the point of this post.  I will say that I will not ever support any politician whose idea of good energy policy is put my friends out of business.  I will fight the power.  As Captain Ahab famously said:

To the last, I grapple with thee.  From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee. For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.

Of course, things didn’t turn out well for Ahab, and they may not for me.  But they’ll know there was a fight.


In the 1970’s, my father worked in the coal industry as an environmental consultant for surface mines.  People said then that there was 20 years of coal left.  When I started practicing law 25 years ago, there was 10 years of coal left.  Ten years ago, there was 10 years of coal left.  Naysayers say that now there is 10 years of coal left.  The future, its seems, follows its own course.

Long ago, I gave up predicting the future.  I don’t know what will happen.  I do know that the path we’re on isn’t good for Kentucky or the rest of the country, for that matter.  Utility rates will increase, resulting in more government money spent to subsidize green energy or just to help people pay their bills.  Countries that use coal–China and India to name just two–will have the advantage over us.  Americans are the ones who can lead the way in continuing to improve clean coal technology.  If we leave the market, we’ll be counting on the Chinese to take the lead.  They are decades behind us in coal mining technology.  There is no reason to think they will quickly embrace cutting-edge environmental technology, either.

A friend of mine and I joke that we are stagecoach salesman.  Our grandchildren will look in wonder as we tell them about this burning rock.  Of course, we don’t really believe that (most days at least).  I’m an optimist at heart.  I hold out hope that adults will enter the room at some point and realize that we can burn coal and improve our technology to minimize environmental impact.  We’ve done it in the past.

In the meantime, I’ll fight the fight.  Others will, too.  Oh, and now you know why my blog is called the Coal Troll.

©thetrivialtroll.wordpress.com 2012