"I was six years old when my peg-legged father sold our two-room shack near Charleston, West Virginia, for thirty cans of Wilson's evaporated milk. He moved the family fifty miles away to Logan County where we continued to struggle with poverty. I stood beside him as he sat in front of dime stores and sold pencils at southern West Virginia towns."
"When we weren't street begging, our family carried shopping bags door to door asking for food and clothes. As a child, I spent my summers berry picking and scavenging through dumps to help feed our family. Sometimes I gathered scrap iron to sell or lumps of coal for heat. On a Saturday in early October, during my 9th grade year, my mom could not deal with poverty any longer. She ran away, leaving me to care for my crippled father and younger brother and sister. I didn't even have time to mourn her absence. Between homework, housework and begging, I had very little time for myself."
Those opening words can be found in a story written by a lady who went on in life to receive three college degrees and become a Logan County educator for close to 40 years. The person I speak of is a resident of Ridgeview in Chapmanville, but more importantly to me is the fact that she was my childhood neighbor and current friend who as a young girl lived in a house directly beside my family at 16 Camp at Verdunville.
Kathy's family could very well be the reason why I - as a child growing up across from Island Creek Coal Company's No. 16 store - never recognized my own family as being poor; at least not compared to them.
Perhaps you've heard the phrase, "Poor people have poor ways." Well, there most certainly is an authentic meaning contained in those five words that nearly all of us who grew up in coalfield Appalachia can relate to.
Although we can all identify in one way or another with some types of hardships in life, few know the impoverishments experienced by Kathy (Evans) Manley, my childhood neighbor and classmate all the way from Verdunville Grade School through Logan High School, where we both graduated in 1971 - along with a young man she would later marry, her current husband, David Manley.
I remember Kathy's family well. I also can verify that what she writes is the truth. You see, I never desired to mention to her the fact that I can remember one of the few times that I came to the town of Logan as a youngster.
I vividly recall her father, "Peg-Leg John", as we all referred to him, sitting on the sidewalk in front of what is now the Peebles store on Stratton Street.
John would take off his wooden leg, sit on the sidewalk with his back against a wall in his bib overalls, and place his worn hat on the concrete where donations, usually just silver, were placed by passersby. It truly was a sad sight. I remember some in our coal camp neighborhood saying that John traveled to other towns and cities to do the same thing, which I hesitate to refer to as begging.
I also can recall the paneled stick-shift truck he miraculously drove, despite fingers missing from his hands and the peg-leg, which truly was homemade, with a piece of an automobile tire on the bottom of the wooden leg, I suppose for balance. The gear shifter in the old truck would not stay in place in third gear, so John had a piece of wood he wedged against the gear shift when he shifted into third gear. How he was able to utilize the clutch to change gears was simply amazing.
Rosie, Kathy's mother, like John, was a very likable person, who laughed a great deal, perhaps camouflaging her family's plight. I remember no one, including my own mother, ever speaking ill of her or John, even though Kathy's older brother (Dana) was bad to steal, and wound up in Pruntytown. A younger brother, Noah, pretty much followed his brother's path of law breaking and also paid the price.
For those readers who are familiar with my "Porch Sitters" stories that refer to a group of guys and a few gals who enjoyed hanging out day and night on the company store porch in our little coal camp - too often getting into mischief - I must tell you that Kathy Evans was not a Porch Sitter. No one gave it a thought back then, but with the responsibility of cooking, housework, taking care of her father and her younger sister (Margaret), in addition to going to school, I now realize that as a 9th grade teenager herself, she simply didn't have time to waste with our group. Therefore, I now anoint my friend as an honorary "Porch Sitter."
Billy, Bobby and Tommy Hall have all left our group of Porch Sitters, as have many others who at one point or another graced the concrete shadows of the company store porch. Jack "Rabbit" Hensley, and his brother David "Pig" Hensley; Mike and Pat Petroff; Jimmy Marcum and his sisters, Kay and Gloria; Jack Tomblin, who died while in the military; Freddy Evans, Tom Back and Linda (McAllister) Hall all grew up with the company store as the community's centerpiece. All of them were people Kathy Manley knew while becoming a teenager in her little coal camp house on Mud Fork. And all of them are now deceased.
Like so many other coal camp people from the hollows of Appalachia, Katherine Evans has managed to overcome economic adversities that has restrained too many others from reaching all of the goals that existed in their walks of life. There can be no doubt as to how her past developed her future, and it is clearly expressed in her story titled "Poverty Brain," one of several stories appearing in the book "Fearless: Women's Journey's To Self-Empowerment," an anthology consisting of 227 pages of essays and stories written by 32 women whose literary talents are displayed.
Published by the non-profit company "Mountain State Press, Inc.", I highly recommend it for reading, as it serves as an inspirational avenue to the appreciation of endurance and success on the highway of life, with all of its roadblocks and red lights that seem never to turn green for the less fortunate souls of society.
Kathy writes of her challenging years and credits some teachers who "took time to encourage me, praise my classroom accomplishments, and give me clothing." "I decided that I wanted to be like them. I wanted to make a difference in the lives of others," says the longtime educator. She would graduate from high school with honors and go on to achieve her goal of becoming a teacher - and making a difference.
"I have tried to be a lifeline, a dedicated source of inspiration and hope, commodities in short supply for many Appalachian children, who because of economic and cultural disadvantages, begin their lives in the same state of relative social invisibility I experienced," she writes. "Surely, one of the most terrible injustices committed against the poor is the assumption that they are people who will never, ever matter, an assumption so pernicious that all but the strongest of the economically disadvantaged come to believe it about themselves."
No, my friend never traveled to "Big Rocks" like the rest of us. And, no, Kathy did not get to play "Lost "Trail" or "Tin Can Alley," nor do I remember the lefthander ever pitching a horseshoe or playing baseball with the gang at what we simply called "The Bottom" (now the location of the Verdunville playground), but it is clear that while none of the rest of us ever made it to the "big leagues," so to speak, Kathy apparently has achieved deserved recognition by no doubt positively affecting hundreds of young lives over the course of her teaching and counseling career.
"I have known hunger, cold and loneliness, but school was my best friend and my escape from poverty," Kathy said.
At a drug ridden time in our local history that compares to no other, perhaps even the pitiful young folks that I know are facing abuse and neglect, as well as outright poverty in our area, can be inspired by a person who is living proof that even the most down trodden can not only persevere, but overcome their sorrows and become an integral and meaningful part of society.
I am so proud of my little coal camp community and all of its inhabitants - some who have left us and some who remain. Kathy Manley, who is so much a part of my own family that she attends our annual family reunion, is someone we all should be proud of for her accomplishments and her courage in relaying what some would consider too embarrassing to talk about, much less write about it. Perhaps the last sentence in her writing sums things up the best:
"We drink fatalism in the water here in southern West Virginia, but I have learned to spit it out."