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.
WHERE (OR WHAT) IS LOYALL?
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.
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.
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.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH HARLAN COUNTY?
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:
- 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.
- As a result, I lived in stifling poverty.
- 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:
- Schools are horrible.
- Health care is horrible.
- Everyone is poor, even people with jobs.
- All the unemployed people are victims of something or other.
- Everyone is a drug addict.
- There is no drinking water.
- There are no roads that can be driven on.
- 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?
LIVING IN REALITY
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.
WHAT ABOUT ALL THAT BAD STUFF?
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.
SO, WHAT’S THE DEAL?
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.