I have been reading Hillbilly Elegy, a book about what used to be known as the Scotch-Irish (the Brits always laugh when Americans come out with phrases like that). J.D. Vance, the author, is a generation younger than I am, from rust belt Ohio and the nearby coal country of Kentucky. This is also the region currently flattened by the opioid epidemic which started with Oxycodone, moved into Percocet and Xanax and ended up at heroin.
I too am from a Scotch-Irish family. My father’s paternal side claimed to come straight out of Scandinavian Scotland, aka the Orkney Islands. This part of the family emigrated in the late 1600’s/early 1700’s through Charleston, South Carolina, nearest we can figure. Part of the family emigrated straight into what is now Mississippi. The rest ended up as gentry in west central Kentucky. His maternal side was Welsh, we think. They came over in the 1840s, emigrating through Baltimore, Maryland. They were poor. The only reason my grandfather and grandmother could marry was because they were both Protestant; religion was important in those days.
My mother’s family was from deepest, darkest Appalachia. No one has any idea when my maternal ancestors emigrated from Northern Europe; good records are not a characteristic of Appalachian life. My mother was born just over the ridge from Abingdon, Virginia. Her father, however, was from Eastern Tennessee. He had been urged to leave home at the age of about 17 or so because he was illegitimate and his mother feared his stepfather would kill him. The mystery as to why his biological father (whom he knew) did not marry his mother remains to this day; neither was married at the time she became pregnant. Thus my mother’s paternal step-grandfather (aka The Mean Old Man) was a mystery, even his surname was assumed. He was evidently a farm hand who agreed to marry my maternal great grandmother when she became pregnant. My mother’s father had four half sisters, all full blooded children of The Mean Old Man and who were well treated.
My mother’s maternal relatives hailed from the Corbin County, Kentucky, area (home of KFC); they were poor as dirt. Her grandmother (aka “Mamaw”) was the alcoholic of the family and mean as all get out; she was the itinerant relative; she would come visit for weeks/months at a time before becoming so irritating that she would be forced to move on to another family member’s abode. Her husband, who no one ever mentioned and either died or ran off before I was born, was consider of no account.
Upon being thrown out of his mountain home, my mother’s father made his way to Knoxville, finding work with the old L&N Railroad which trained him to become a steam engine mechanic. Thus he escaped Appalachia, eventually ending up in Louisville, Kentucky. My father’s family remained Kentucky gentry until my grandfather’s older brothers squandered the family fortune, the depression came along and he and my grandmother were forced into the big city (Louisville), where he found a lifetime’s work with the A&P grocery store. My father, born in Louisville and an only child, put himself through college, then law school, by working for the local newspaper. My mother, the second of five children, was a nurse.
My family were teetotalers, i.e. they did not drink, part of that Southern Baptist wave that kept Rev. Billy Graham in a nice house for so many years. All had seen the effects of drinking and the lack of discipline it fostered; all decided, more or less independently, that there would be no drinking or dancing if they had anything to say about it. And there wasn’t. No cussing. No making scenes or public disrespect. You thought before you spoke; you didn’t make snap judgments; you sat quietly in church which you attended regularly, meaning at least three times a week; you were clean and dressed as well as you could; you did not speak out of turn.
Mr. Vance and I share remarkably the same bloodlines but the generational difference is staggering. The pre-World War II people who came out of the Kentucky/Tennessee backcountry ended up in Louisville, giving the place its distinctive characteristic of being Midwestern city with a southern culture. They were remarkably sober and social climbing, they worked hard and never made scenes. After World War II, the contents of poverty stricken Appalachia ended up in Ohio, industrial Indiana and Western Pennsylvania. The antics described by Mr. Vance would have caused not only consternation in my family, they would have caused the family to exile (so to speak) the offender(s).
This is what happened to the Mean Old Man. He, of course, was never going to waste away in some coal mine. In the Appalachians you have two courses of industry: coal mining or moonshine. Unfortunately, this is still true. There are a few moonshining dynasties left, although the industry is now peppered with dilettantes who make craft moonshine in the broad daylight of legality. At any rate, The Mean Old Man outlived his wife by about ten years, dying balled up with arthritis at age 99 or so. Upon his mother’s death (about 1970), my grandfather put everyone in the family on notice that he repudiated his father, and that his half sisters would now be responsible for their father. He and his stepfather never spoke again.
My maternal grandfather was a stoic man, tall with rough features, snapping black eyes and black hair. He was dark; somewhat like Johnny Cash only not so good looking, with a sly sense of humor. He was good at staying employed; after retiring from the railroad, he took a job driving hearses for one of the local funeral homes, always smoking a cigar outside during the services. This provided not only extra income but also good stories for the dinner table.
So, if you’re from Appalachia, that place of bastardized Celtic culture, you pick your poison. Moonshine is now legal – no fun in that. Plus, it’s damned expensive. The new moonshine is over-the-counter prescriptions and cheap heroin. This has followed the rotting spine of leftover industry into the rust belt, where it is killing off what’s left of that old Appalachian culture, syringe by syringe. The young people, the ones that avoid the drugs, are now doing what my grandfather did in the 1910’s; they are leaving home; looking for that railroad to a better life.