Almost Heaven

It’s summer, the country’s traveling, and the great pleasure to be had from leaving home is meeting and falling in love with a place you’ve never been to. I end that sentence with a preposition to segue into my favorite story this summer of cultural tensions and differences as navigated by two American women. A Southern lady sees a vacationing society lady from the Northeast. The Southern lady is gregarious: “Where y’all from?” Society lady is put off: “I’m from a place where they don’t end sentences with a preposition.” Southern lady smiles, nods her head: “Beg your pardon. Where y’all from, bitch?”

It’s fun to see cultures collide, because that’s one of the ways you know they still exist. America continues to be full of differentness, in spite of the samening effect of national media. (I made up samening. It refers to the tendency of different, small and localized pockets of culture to take on the ways and values of national culture as it is imposed by television, music and movies.)

Local survives. Particular and distinctive survive. Especially in West Virginia.

*   *   *

I have just been there for the first time, and it is a jewel of a state. It is like an emerald you dig from a hill with your hands.

You know when you’ve passed into it from the east because suddenly things look more dramatic. You get the impression you’re in a real place. All around you are mountains and hills and gullies, gulches and streams. The woods wherever I went were thick and deep. From Morgantown to Ballengee a squirrel can jump from tree to tree. It is a tall state—the hills, trees and mountains—and shadowy-dark, with winding roads, except for where it’s broad and beige and full of highway, courtesy of Robert Byrd. The highways are perfect looking, unstained by wear and tear, and not many people seem to use them.

There are little churches in every town, where the highest thing is the steeples, and road signs with exhortations to follow Jesus, and big crosses made of white wood on the side of the road. The ACLU would do well not to come here and do their church-state thing. Three hours into our drive west, a police car drove by, and someone mentioned that was the first one he’d seen since we crossed the state line. Someone else said, approvingly, “Everyone keeps a gun in West Virginia. Crime is low.” Later I would be told it has the lowest violent crime per capita in the United States. It is very nice, when traveling, to see your beliefs and assumptions statistically borne out.

Few people I met seemed interested in politics. I got the impression they see is as something dull and faraway, as a normal person would. I was in the southwest corner of the state, in the Fayetteville area of Fayette County, named for the Marquis de Lafayette. When I asked a man tending the grass in front of the statue of Lafayette on the courthouse lawn why they left the “La” off, he said he didn’t know but “maybe it was a little lah dee dah.” West Virginia has a town named Artie and a town named Bud.

When you are from the Northeast, the talk always goes inevitably to the niceness of the people. “They’re real,” as a new resident of Charleston, the state capital, told me. People are nice in the Northeast, too, but there seems a particular dignity and humility to West Virginians. Because it has been left so alone by history, so hard to get to and get out of, West Virginia’s people seem to be largely what they were, of Scots-Irish descent, and have remained vividly so.

After a week I told a longtime resident of Charleston that the people I was meeting were kind and easygoing, but something tells me you don’t want to get them mad. “You are correct,” she said. She was a tall and gallant lady who was a veteran of state politics. She told me of a meeting years ago when she went to a high official with the United Mine Workers to ask him for support as she ran for office. She was a Democrat and supported the UMW but had reservations about large parts of its recent agenda. The UMW official told her, “I know you are better educated than I am, and I am willing to believe you are smarter than I am, but I am not willing to believe that I am wrong about everything and you are right about everything.” She said she got thinking about that and concluded he had a point. He didn’t support her. She won anyway.

*   *   *

We went to a little old coal-mining town, where we visited what used to be the company store and is now an antique shop. I saw the scrip with which the operators paid the miners. I thought scrip was paper money, but it’s thin metal ovals like quarters and nickels, with the number of the mine the miner works in stamped through. In a side room was a picture of the company store as it had been circa 1900. The whole right side of the store was a long polished bar, with rows of whiskey bottles along the walls. This in a place that was relatively impoverished. The other half of the store sold dry goods.

You can see the whole beginning of the Ladies Christian Temperance Union right in this picture, I thought: Maybe Prohibition was a Protestant movement and not a Catholic one in some part because the Catholics of the East weren’t paid in scrip but with green money, so an edge of coercion—We’ll work you to death and then force you to pay high prices for our whiskey as you pour out your woes—and the resentment coercion brings, was missing.

At the store the man behind the counter was friendly, intelligent and missing an eye. He had no artificial eye, no eye patch, just a red space where the eye would be. When I asked his name he said, “Jack, but my friends call me One Eye.” I nodded at this information and remembered what a friend told me. He works with a local man who was complaining about his lazy brother-in-law who’s on welfare. “He wouldn’t take a job in a pie factory!”

And there was the New River. They aren’t sure why it’s called the New and think Lewis and Clark were surprised to come upon its broad gray power, its falls and whitewater, and called it New because its existence was news to them. It cuts through the bottom of a great Appalachian gorge. Its beauty is as striking as the Hudson, only with more trees and wildness and rafts bouncing down the rapids. On River Day once a year the bungee jumpers and parachutists come. The New River is alive.

One night we went to an outdoor restaurant overlooking the gorge and ate pork chops and macaroni mustard chicken, and a waitress told us people are buying up the land nearby and prices are going up.

They’re buying up the land in a lot of West Virginia from what I could see, and why wouldn’t they, with so much natural beauty and beautiful people? But having just come upon it as an outsider, I don’t want more outsiders like me to come. This feeling was echoed by a doctor from India who has worked for many years at a local hospital. He told me the state is changing and about to change more. It used to be a long and dangerous trip to Washington on narrow, winding roads, but now it’s all been paved and broadened, and now more people can get in and more people can get out. “It used to be impossible,” he said. He both welcomed and mourned this. He is a modern man and appreciates change and the good it can bring, but he didn’t want his pocket of authenticity—he’s the one who called it “a jewel”—to change.

I read local periodicals and history magazines. I couldn’t get enough of the great mining wars of the early 20th century, about the operators and union men and the nonunion workers and hired detectives and the shots in the night. I read about and heard about the Civil War battles fought down the road. Lee was here. The friend whose house I stayed in had a collection of almost a hundred Indian arrowheads dug up from the backyard. The Shawnee had been here, too. Shawnee warriors had made these sharp flint heads of gray and blue and black, had held them in their hands, and I was inspecting them closely just six inches away, in the year 2005.

*   *   *

And I rediscovered the legend of John Henry, the steel-driving man. When I was in grade school in New York they taught us the ballad of John Henry, and I had thought of it over the years but never learned his story.

When the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad was being built in the mountains just after the Civil War (last week I walked on its old tracks), the work crews were worked hard. The most famous worker was John Henry, a steel driver who hammered spikes into the mountainside to make space for sticks of dynamite that would blow away mountain to make room for the tracks. The steel driver and the man who placed and turned the spikes had to work with speed and split-second precision. The men laying down the tracks worked to their rhythm. Words came out of this, out of the rhythm of the hit and the hammer and haul, and the words became chants and poems and folk songs, and they spread from the tracks to the town and then out to the country.

John Henry was a young man, black, about 6-foot-2, 190 pounds of muscle. He is said to have been a former slave, and might have been a convict assigned to manual labor. His might and capacity were becoming famous throughout Appalachia when something new happened. During the blasting of the Big Bend Tunnel in the mountains near the town of Talcott, a rival crew captain brought in a steam drill. He said a machine would pound steel better than a man. John Henry vowed to beat it; nothing’s better than a man. And so the contest commenced.

There are many versions of the ballad of John Henry—early versions, folk versions, chain-gang versions, Grand Ol’ Opry. I like this one:

    When John Henry was a little baby
    Sittin’ on his mama’s knee
    He picked up a hammer and a little piece of steel,
    and said, “This’ll be the death of me,”
    Lord, Lord, this’ll be the death of me.

    The captain says to John Henry
    “Gonna bring a steam drill ’round
    Gonna take that steam drill out on the job
    Gonna whop that steel on down,”
    Lord, Lord, gonna whop that steel on down.

    John Henry told the captain,
    “A man ain’t nothing but a man,
    Before I let your steam drill beat me down,
    I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.”

    Sun shine hot and burnin’
    Wasn’t no breeze at all
    Sweat ran down like water down a hill
    The day John Henry let his hammer fall,

    John Henry went to the tunnel
    And they put him in the lead to drive
    The rock so tall and John Henry so small
    He laid down his hammer and he cried
    Lord Lord, he laid down his hammer and he cried.

    John Henry started on the right hand,
    That steam drill started on the left—
    “Before I’d let this steam drill beat me down,
    I’d hammer myself to death,”
    Lord Lord, I’d hammer myself to death.

    John Henry said to his shaker,
    “Shaker, why don’t you sing?
    I’m throwin’ twelve pounds from my hips on down,
    Just listen to that cold steel ring,”
    Lord Lord, listen to that cold steel ring.

    Oh the cap’n said to John Henry,
    “I believe this mountain’s sinkin’ in”,
    John Henry said to his captain, “Oh my,
    That’s nothin’ but my hammer suckin’ win’”
    Lord lord, aint nothin’ but my hammer suckin’ win’

    That man that invented the steam drill
    Thought he was mighty fine.
    John Henry drove his hammer fourteen foot
    And the steam drill only made nine.

    John Henry was hammerin’ the mountain,
    And his hammer was striking fire,
    He drove so hard till he broke his pore heart
    And he laid down his hammer and he died,
    Lord Lord, he laid down his hammer and he died.

    They took John Henry to a hillside,
    He looked to the heavens above;
    He said, “Take my hammer and wrap it in gold,
    And give it the girl I love,”
    Lord, Lord, Give it to the girl I love.

    Well they took John Henry to the white house,
    And they buried him deep in the sand,
    And every locomotive come a roarin’ by
    Says “There lies a steel drivin’ man”
    Lord lord, there lies a steel drivin man.

No one knows exactly how much of the story of John Henry is true. But it’s a wonderful country that makes such men, and if he wasn’t real it’s a wonderful country that makes such stories. Thank you, West Virginia, of reminding me of this one, and others.