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Sunday Driver: Where I Come From

Jim Burroway

August 23rd, 2009

I don’t know how much of this is true, but I think I remember reading that anthropologists say that those exotic names a group of people give themselves, whether it’s an American Indian tribe or an indigenous ethnic group in Africa or South Asia, often come down to just being that group’s word for “us” or “our people.” It’s the outsiders they name, not the in-group. The in-group is just “us.”

Welcome to Portsmouth, where oxycontin is known as "hillbilly heroin"

Welcome to my hometown, where Oxycontin is known as "hillbilly heroin."

Like I said, I don’t know how true that is but it somehow feels right. I grew up in Appalachia, which I guess makes me an Appalachian. I grew up in Portsmouth, Ohio, on the Ohio river right about where Ohio meets Kentucky and West Virginia. I don’t think I or any of my friends really thought of ourselves as Appalachians; the word didn’t really have any meaning for us until we moved away — that is, at least, among those of us who did manage move away. I mean, okay, we saw television commercials for Appalachian Power, and the mountains a hundred or so miles to the east were the Appalachian Mountains, but it was just a name to us. We were just “us,” just like the anthropologists said. It wasn’t until I left that I came to understand our Appalachian-ness.

Now, I know that Dolly Parton always says that when she was growing up, she didn’t think she was poor. Neither did I, but then again, we really weren’t poor. We were perhaps lower middle class, somewhat middle class-ish, somewhere in there. Generally better off than our neighbors, but not as well-off as middle class folks in the big cities like Columbus — which, by the way, was for us the very definition of a chic and sophisticated cosmopolitan city. Yes, Columbus. Which goes to show we really were Appalachian.

But it took me a very long time before I could own the name “Appalachian.” After all, it carries a lot of baggage in the larger American culture. Hillbillies, moonshine, “Deliverance,” — that’s just barely scratching the surface, and none of it was relevant to my growing up there. All of those images are grossly unfair to the good people who live there, including most of my own family who still make Southern Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia their home.

But over time I have come to embrace where I came from, although I have to admit that it is much easier being from there than it would be had I remained there. The further away I’ve moved, the easier it has become for me to be Appalachian. Maybe it’s the safety of distance that allows me to do this, but I doubt it. I think it’s more a matter of the perspective that that distance provides. I mean, think of it this way: we all come from somewhere, but so few of us come from a place so unique that outsiders had to give it a special name. So why not own that?

The remains of the steel mill where my dad and just about everyone else worked until 1980. There’s a Wal-Mart there now.

The remains of the steel mill where my dad and just about everyone else worked until 1980. There’s a Wal-Mart there now.

I was reminded again of where I come from when I saw this article posted on my hometown newspaper’s web site. It appears that there are a couple of people there who are still looking for Bigfoot. You know, Sasquatch, the legendary man-beast of the forests. And someone else made a documentary about them, which debuted at SXSW in Austin last year. But according to filmmaker and Portsmouth native Jay Delaney, the movie’s not really about Bigfoot, but “the trials and triumphs of life in Appalachian Ohio. It’s not only their research, but also the struggles they face in trying to hold on to this dream they have.” This trailer gives you a very good idea of what my hometown looks like and what the people there sound like.

YouTube Preview Image

Watching that made me just a little homesick. I know you won’t understand that, but there it is. I’m looking forward to the DVD coming out next month.

Sometime when I was in middle school, there was a huge local Bigfoot rage going on. We suddenly heard all these stories about Bigfoot sightings in the forests and hills out in the county, but no one ever got a good, clear picture of whatever it was they thought they saw. That’s why few people took these sightings seriously. In fact, someone or someones unknown decided to have a little fun with all the talk by creating three-foot long stencils of bare footprints and spray-painting huge white Bigfoot-prints on the sidewalks all over town. To paraphrase Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter, we may have been hicks but that didn’t mean we were stupid.

I never saw Bigfoot, at least not in real life. But they did come to me once in a dream. I dreamed I was hiking in the woods out by Turkey Creek Lake where I came across a family of Bigfoots — a father, a mother, and a couple of, I guess, Littlefoots? Anyway, they were in a cave sitting around a stone table about to have dinner. Daddy Bigfoot saw me and gruffly hustled the kids away, but Mamma Bigfoot stayed behind so we could talk. “You’ll have to excuse him,” she said. “He’s really very nice once you get to know him, but he just doesn’t trust people. You see, we’ve been hunted down, chased, and treated very badly by them. Humans just won’t leave us alone.”

I nodded, and felt a little bit ashamed for having encroached on their home. But she reassured me that everything was okay with a gentleness that I found very touching. I was then overwhelmed by a desire to prove that at least one human could treat a family of Bigfoots with dignity and respect. But in order to do that, there was one point on Bigfoot etiquette that I really needed to know. So I decided to broach what seemed to me a delicate subject.

“May I ask you something?”

“Of course,” she said, raising her furry eyebrows ever so slightly.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what do you call yourselves?”

She looked at me with a look of gratitude that I would ask such a question. “Why, we call ourselves ‘Our-Its.’” Wow, I thought, just as anthropologists observed so many times before. And then she reached out and put her hand on my arm, leaned in ever so slightly, and said, “You know, we really hate the name ‘Bigfoot.’ It’s so… she paused, then whispered, “demeaning.”

Yeah, I know just what she means.

Comments

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Alan
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

I’m curious Jim, do you think you could ever move back to Appalachia?

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, fairly far from the city. The last few years I’ve lived in a trendy suburb right on the city’s edge, really a part of the city. I was planning to move farther west, deeper into the suburbs, to get away from the crowds and lack of parking.

But a funny thing happened, I found that I liked where I lived, I liked having things (and the city) close by, I liked all the little shops and ancient trees and historic homes. I had become an urbanite.

I still identify myself as a suburbanite, but I probably can’t live in the suburbs any longer. I wonder if you feel the same way about your Appalachian identity.

GreenEyedLilo
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

This is just plain awesome, Jim. Looking forward to a Sunday drive every week. I really appreciated your insight about how the out-groups get names, but an in-group, whatever it is, is just “us.” I loved the story of your Bigfoot–or “Our-It”–dream, too.

I’m kind of caught-between myself. Five years ago, I left Florida, where I was born and raised, to live in NYC with my wife. I get homesick. Believe it or not, seeing this, about a woman who got out her pocket knife to attack a man but was only going to “whack his nose with the handle like you do an alligator” made me homesick earlier this week. Florida is not like, well, anywhere. And I don’t think I quite fit in NYC.

But I have great friends here, and I can eat whatever kinds of cuisine I want, and I love quirky events like Zombiecon and the Mermaid Parade. I like that here, the weather will get cooler and calmer soon. Then there’s the small matter of my wife being happy here and not really wanting to go anywhere else. I feel exactly how Alan said–I identify as a Floridian, but don’t really want to live in Florida again, not yet.

I wonder if this happens to sexual minority people disproportionately, or is more universal. I have two straight friends who also moved up here from the South; we have a lot to talk about. But there are things they’ve never experienced that I have, too.

Jim Burroway
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Could I ever move back? I really don’t think so, although sometimes I’m tempted. For example, an older home in Portsmouth (one old enough to be considered historic anywhere else) can be had for $40,000-$60,000 in good condition. (“Newer” houses are anything built since 1950 or so.)

But I don’t seriously think I could go back. Not so much because it’s Appalachia. I don’t think I could go back because I’ve become too accustomed to living near major cities with all that they offer. I don’t think I could move to any town of just 18,000 people no matter where it is.

I live in Tucson now, and at just over a million people including outlying areas — and as nice as it is here — I still often find it too small for my tastes. I could never go back to Portsmouth. But whenever I do go back for a visit, I often catch myself mulling the possibilities.

Regan DuCasse
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

In my travels across this amazing country, this urban/soujourner/big city woman had a bit of a revelation…this country has CHARACTER, and flavors and a CULTURE all it’s own.

Through http://www.ruralgay.com for example, I made some friends of small town folks from places I’d never heard of. A few have come out my way to visit, and I’ve actually made the trek their way.
I’m proud of the cultural exchange so to speak and although big cities might be the brains of the country, the smaller towns are the heart.
Either way, there certainly is a place in mine for all kinds of anywhere, it’s ALL home.

Great essay Jim, you have a proud origin to name yourself in any case.

David
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Jim

I grew up in Scioto Co. also. I grew up with the stench of the steel mill polluting the air and hated that. The best entertainment to be found was “cruising”, driving back and forth in downtown Portsmouth, watching people watching you.

I graduated high school in 1989 and remember even then feeling a palpable sense that Portsmouth was a dying town. In the 20 years since, it’s only gotten worse and confirmed to me that getting out of there was the only thing to do.

I haven’t been back there since 2001 and only then to attend a funeral. I couldn’t even begin to imagine living there and have never entertained the idea.

Nugget
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Great post. I went to Morehead State my first semester of college and my roommate was from your town…or at least the outskirts. He fondly talked of shooting his dinner (rattle snake for soup), and was in awe of the residence hall in-door plumbing. Surprisingly, he pledged the largely gay frat on campus (Sigma Nu) and I transferred to a private college in Missouri. I was an “uppity” kid from the big city (Louisville!), came to that university on a swimming scholarship, but just couldn’t deal with the “low brow” class. How I wish I had stayed. My one semester there taught me more about life, privilege, race, religion, and sexuality than anyplace I’d ever lived since…excluding, of course, San Francisco. Opposite poles, yet equally instructive.

Jim Burroway
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Nugget,

Thanks for writing. I’ve known people without indoor plumbing. I’ve also known people who heated with firewood. It’s more common than many people think, although it’s more a rural phenomenon than a city/town one.
Although there was an elderly lady across the street from us whose house was heated with a wood-burning furnace in the basement. She spent all summer dragging a child’s red wagon around collecting scrap wood.

I remember asking my great-great grandmother what a “hick” was. She told me that it was someone who had never bothered to learn anything about other people outside their own little world. She also reminded me that hicks can be found everywhere, even in some mighty fancy places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. I’ve never forgotten that.

Jim Burroway
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

David,

Do you remember how nobody in their right mind would buy a white car when the steel mill was operating? The soot from the mill covered every house and car in town. Even though it’s much more economically depressed today than it was when the mill was operating, the houses and cars today, ironically enough, are much cleaner than they used to be.

Candace
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Jim, my grandmother lived on the side of Pine Mountain in Harlan County, Kentucky, and she didn’t get indoor plumbing till I was 15. She had a wood-burning stove and I remember helping her string pole beans on waxed thread to make leather britches for the winter. My grandfather helped to found the United Mine Workers and died long before I came along but I’ll never forget the strength those people had in good times and bad.

I don’t see anything to equal it today.

Jim Burroway
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Candace… That’s Daniel Boone National Forest area. I’ve never made it down there unfortunately, but I imagine it’s very beautiful.

You grandfather sounds like he was quite a brave man. Was he a part of the mine wars in the 1920′s?

Thom
August 23rd, 2009 | LINK

Odd- I live in Gallipolis, and I’ve always thought of myself as Appalachian. Anyway, good to know you’re a local, or once were!

deb
August 24th, 2009 | LINK

Jim,

Thanks for this post. Everyone comes from somewhere, and most of us don’t live there anymore.

It’s good to remember where we came from and the people who still live there. I was born in a town I never grew up in, yet it is a part of my psyche, because my grandparents were there for most of my life.

I never lived on a farm, but I was able to gather eggs and ride horses and slop (feed) hogs and milk cows when I was growing up. I only did those things a few times, all when I was a child visiting my grandmother. I’ve also walked behind a plow pulled by a mule, walked barefoot in a ‘garden’ bigger than my any yard I’ve had in the sububurbs or city. I’m a (small) city girl, for sure, but I always imagined myself a country girl.

I grew up ‘in town’, but I’ve always identified more with time spent with my grandmothers or helping with the farm animals. I feel like my experiences as a child gave me a completely different perspective than other children I knew growing up in the suburbs.

I realize what I just wrote doesn’t exactly relate to what you wrote. But, you just reminded me of things that felt like ‘us’ to me when I was growing up, even though I never really was part of the ‘us’ having a garden tilled with a mule and a plow or cows and chickens that supplied the milk I drank and eggs I ate.

Thanks again for sharing this story. :)

David
August 24th, 2009 | LINK

Jim

I never thought about it that much, but now that you mention it I don’t really remember any white cars. Maybe they were white but looked tan/gray. LOL.

One thing about Portsmouth that most people probably don’t know is that it was the home of the Portsmouth Spartans, one of the nation’s first pro football teams. The team was sold in 1934 to a group of investors in Detroit, who renamed the team the Lions. The same Detroit Lions that had a 0-16 season last year.

Candace
August 24th, 2009 | LINK

Yes, he was in the march when the National Guard opened fire on the miners with machine guns– and I guarantee you won’t find that one in the history books, but I still have an ancient newspaper clipping showing the Guard in back of the machine guns and dead miners laying in the street. He was shot in the leg during the gunfight.

I know my mother said that John L. Lewis was a regular at their house for dinner and once the Vice President of the United States came with him.

My grandfather was working in the coal mines from from sunup till sundown by the time he was 6 years old.

My father helped build the Cumberland State Park when he was in the CCCs. I haven’t been there in years, but I still remember it both for it’s harshness and it’s beauty.

Silverbackbutch
December 6th, 2009 | LINK

Jim,

Now this explains a lot of why I like your writing so much. I grew up in Martins Ferry, up the river by Wheeling WVA. Just a few miles south of the town that was the most polluted in the nation back in the ’70s – Stubenville, OH. The river was pretty nasty – couldn’t eat any of the fish and wouldn’t dare go swimming back when I was a kid.

But it does leave it’s mark on us. I also couldn’t live in the town I grew up in, too small for me and it’s not close enough to anyplace I could get work (I do theatre work.)

But it’s amazing how much cleaner everything is now. The steel mill only runs 8/5 not 24/7, but at least they still have some work. Most of the jobs seem to be gone, and have been gone since back in the 80′s.

Keep up the good work, I’ll keep reading.

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