West Virginia. I hear her voice…

I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning thinking about West Virginia. I could not go back to sleep. The more I didn’t sleep, the more I thought about it. And I thought about it in dreamy, misty, almost spiritual ways, about the people and the life of living there. People that I knew, and the faces of people I did not know but had seen, driving by their home maybe sharing a glance. This meandering post came out of that sleeplessness and waves of imagery that floated in my head in the darkness of our bedroom in Atlanta. 

Most people experience the state driving on the way through it to somewhere else. They can sneak a peek of the beauty from these interstates, cruising along at 70 miles an hour, when the road isn’t bending madly around hilltops, blowing by the farmland, mountains and valleys. Occasionally, if your dad drives close enough to the bridge railing, and you’re sitting on the right side of the car, you strain your neck and look way down to a speck of river hundreds of feet below. You can even imagine being down there on that river looking up at the bridge. Then, you’re gone. Gone to wherever you’re going, but not here. 

Life in West Virginia is not lived on these highways. Life here, the living that John Denver memorialized in “Take Me Home Country Roads,” is lived deep in the ancient crevices cut out by running water flowing through high ground. It’s lived up dirt roads cut out of these hills over a hundred years ago by men with mean tools, horses, mules and will. These roads crawl, twist and turn like the stream beds they follow. Coming around a bend might reveal a house on the other side of the crick, but it seldom uncovers people. People are sparse and hidden in the mists constantly hanging in the air, guarding the hollers like a blanket. These folk are hangers on. Hanging on to a living long past. Hanging on to life by a thread. Hanging on to a memory of the energy fueled by mining the bituminous coal that long ago left town, leaving the poorest conditions in the country. 

If energy drives riches, poverty drowns the fire like a bucket of water.

Living is slow here because there’s little where to go, and even less to do. Unless you farm. But farming is a rugged and meager livelihood. West Virginia isn’t called The Mountain State for nothing. It’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain region.  

So what got me thinking of West Virginia when I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning? A recent phone call with my friend, John Waller, a proud West Virginian. Determined. Hard working. Smart. Oh, and stubborn. Did I mention that? S-t-u-double b-o-r-n: Stubborn.

He was not happy that President Biden had cancelled the permit for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline by Executive Order, reversing Trump’s Executive Order issuing the governmental approval. John said that Biden killed over 8,000 jobs with that pen stroke. He said he was now “waiting for the windmills to show up.” 

I guess that I should also have said that John can be pretty witty, an only slightly veiled cover for sarcasm with his “waiting for the windmills.”

I realized how little I knew about the pipeline outside of it having been highly controversial for over more than a decade and I said so on the call. I agreed that, on its face, losing any jobs today is not good. I promised to dig into it some. Which I did. More about that later.

Then John asked a question that at the start I thought was more sarcasm until I realized that he was being very serious. 

“Where are the reparations for those generations of hard working West Virginia coal miners who worked those mines at the cost of their health and lives? Where are the reparations for the families that owned the land but not the minerals in the ground?” he asked. He continued to reflect on how all of that coal that powered America and the World, pulled and stripped out from underneath these hills made a lot of people, mostly people not from nor living in West Virginia, rich beyond imagination. “They took the coal, the money and left West Virginia the second poorest state in the country, ranking only slightly higher than Mississippi. 

I had no answer to that. I had never thought of it that way nor heard it put in the form of reparations. And, frankly, it hurt my heart. 

That’s why West Virginia was on my mind. 

John and I go back a long way. He’s been a best friend for 52 of the 53 years I’ve known him. Somewhere in there we took a break. Of course it had something to do with a girl. We met when we were 14 and, believe me, there’s a ton of stories to share about our times together…later, but not now. My dad and John’s father, Cam, worked for the same company. Because of their work in West Virginia, I know something personally about this vast state. I’ve not just seen it from off of the highways, I helped build the highways where there were none. I mean, in a very minuscule way, I did, just as John, my brothers and some close friends of ours did as well. 

There are several major highways that flow through the state of West Virginia today. Interstate- 77 and 79 run North and South. I-64 runs East and West and they all converge on Charleston, the state capitol and largest city. It’s home to 46,536 residents (2010 Census.) And that is the state’s biggest city!

The time that I spent there, the really formative time in my life that I spent there, were the summers jacked in between my college years. Starting in the Summer of 71, following my graduating from Durham High School until I finished at UNC-CH in 1975, I worked on road jobs in Burnsville and Wolf Summit, WV, and lived in West Union. I also spent a lot of time on the Farm in Pennsboro. Look these places up. “Town” is too big of a name for them. They were villages and hamlets by size.

My dad was an executive for Nello L. Teer Company, a Durham-based international construction company. They built roads, highways and dams. We talk today of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, but it was Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act that is the MacDaddy of the U.S. government investing in infrastructure, the largest American public works to that time.  This act, justified as a national defense program tied to the need to be able to evacuate cities in case of attack, became the source that spurred so much more. It redefined travel and shipping from rail to car and truck. It made travel safer, cheaper and more convenient. It created a whole industry of service centers along the way. It also bypassed small towns, stealing their commerce from travelers, broke up farms, led to the flight from cities to the suburbs. It also created more carbon pollutants as a by-product to increased automobile traffic. 

But, for me, it fueled the growth of Teer Company and my dad’s career. It also provided jobs for me, my brothers and sisters, whenever we wanted them. And, once we turned 18, we were old enough to work in the “field,” meaning that we could work on a construction project and make triple the pay of office work. 

So, that’s what I did, joining my older brother in West Virginia. And, that’s how I know villages like Burnsville, West Union, Wolf Summit and Pennsboro. Places that number in the hundreds of citizens, not thousands or hundreds of thousands. Places that are even smaller today than yesteryear, when I lived in them working on I-79 and on U.S. Route 50. 

That’s what took me to Burnsville, my first highway job, halfway between Charleston and Morgantown, the whole way into the middle of nowhere. 

Cam was the superintendent of this job and another operation an hour away. John worked on the job on the pipe crew. My brother, Lin, came up later in the summer too. 

I do have a sidebar to inject here, sort of deep background. 

I had convinced two high school buddies, John Katzenmeyer and Bob Umberger, to join me working on the job, for the money and the experience. Then, at the last moment, I backed out for the love of a girl, my high school sweetheart. I deservedly took a lot of crap from Bob and John. They went up without me anyway. I started the summer working on Teer’s Durham Roads and Streets division, mostly laying curb and gutter on new roads in town. The long hot days left me too spent to spend time with my girlfriend, and I was making a half the wages my buddies were raking in West Virginia. Plus, they were egging me on to come up, telling me how much fun they were having being on their own for the first time.

After just a few weeks, I changed my mind. I moved in with them in a small home they were renting with John on the main road of running through Burnsville. Carl, the elderly landlord, lived in the back room with his own back door entrance, leaving us two small bedrooms, a living area, a one-butt kitchen and one bath. We could occasionally hear the old man but we almost never saw him.

I did not serve in the military, but the Summer of ‘71 became my boot camp and Cam was my drill instructor. He seemed to take personal pleasure in making me miserable, assigning me to the fence crew instead of operating equipment like my brother. He also kept John and me apart on the job, probably so we wouldn’t stir ourselves into trouble together. He was, like the mission of every DI, going to make a man out of me if it killed me. 

Cam said, “If you shake it more than once…”

My first morning reporting to the job, we road with John Waller in his 1966 Thunderbird the few miles over to the parking area at the job site. At 6:45 a.m. I met the other three guys on our crew and we all crawled into the bed of our foreman’s company pickup for the ride up to the day’s work site. As we were pulling out, one of the guy’s started putting something in his mouth and offered it to me. I told him the I didn’t chew tobacco. He smiled and said, “This ain’t tobacco. It’s marijuana. And you don’t chew it. You dip it like snuff, just a pinch between your lip and gum.” 

I thanked him and, surprisingly, declined his offer. Why? Well, “A,” I’m the son of the vice president of the company. And, “B,” well, how about just “No.” The idea of it was too weird. So, weird that I’ve never forgotten that adaptation of getting a buzz.  

We turned off of the hard surface road on to a trail road that dipped through a rocky creek bed, crawling up and over rocky terrain, grinding and bouncing up the steep grade, the engine straining until eventually we climbed to where the cleared land ended and that Ford couldn’t go any farther. 

We jumped out of the back and Bob and I turned away to take a leak over the ridge. Water had just started to flow when I heard Cam’s voice. “Boys, if you shake it more than once, you’re playing with it. Now let’s get going!” 

Caught by surprise, I laughed, put things in their proper place, zipped up and turned around with a smile on my face, to see Cam for the first time since I’d arrived. He…was not smiling. He was serious and stern showing no indication that we even knew each other. “Come on, now. Let’s get going,” he added, all business-like. 

We did.. And I knew things were different on the job between Cam and me. I wasn’t the VP’s son. I was nobody special. Damn it! And, man was I glad at that moment that I hadn’t accepted that dip of marijuana. Would have been a major buzz-kill. I realized later that Cam’s point was to let the other guys on the job also know that I wasn’t getting special treatment.

Our foreman started handing out the tools we’d need for the work ahead: standard issue shovels of different shapes and pick axes for digging. It was also when I first met the spud bar. That thick steel rod about six feet long, one to two inches in width, weighing 15-20 pounds, with a chisel point on one end and sharp point on the other. It’s used to bang and pry through rocks while digging a hole. I grew to hate that bar until I understood it and stopped fighting it. 

If and when you do drive through West Virginia I challenge you to look for the fences on the side of the highway that were mandated parts of the Interstate plan, put there to keep animals off of the highway. In the hill country, those fences tended to be way up the side of the hill around which the road was being cut. We often had to portage our tools, fencing wire and posts up the hill when no truck or bull dozer could make the climb. The worst was carrying mixed concrete in 5 gallon buckets used to secure “pull” posts – the posts that took the most tension in the fence. One full bucket weighed 100 pounds! I only weighed in then at 125!!! 

Needless to say, it was an experience in my life like no other. I learned very quickly just how hard work could be, where everything that you get done goes through your hands, your arms, your legs and your feet. How you felt it in each muscle until you were stretched so far you could no longer feel. I learned how important it was to protect your hands and to watch your step. I found out too quickly how little my work in the flat land of Durham had prepared me for working in these hills. And I wondered if I was a match for it. 

I just realized that I have not properly introduced you to our foreman. His name was Everette Dodson. Everette was a very fit middle-aged man with a big chest and strong, deliberate arms. His hair was cut high and tight like a military crew cut hidden underneath his hard hat. He had clear eyes and a clean spirit. He showed up every morning dressed in crisp work pants and clean boots, ready for the day ahead. 

Bob reminded me that Everette had once run a hardware store in Pennsboro that folded. That’s when he began working for Cam and Teer Company. He also had driven a bus for Greyhound at one point in his life, and was the first to drive a commercial bus across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel when it opened. So, he’s in a record book somewhere. 

Everette was not the smartest person we would ever meet, and he certainly gave us plenty of reasons to laugh about things he did or said. But there wasn’t a mean bone in that man’s body. Looking back, I think about the position he was in, running this small crew mostly made up of local young men, with the added and possibly dicey responsibility for me and my friends.

To his credit, Everette took Cam’s lead, and treated us like we were nobody special in any way other than we were on his crew. His team. And I think he was proud to lead a team, even if it was just the fence crew, to wear a yellow hat identifying him as a foreman, driving a company truck. He enjoyed it. It was hard, honest work.

As affable as he was, he didn’t mince words if we were a minute late for our 6:45 a.m. call time. Even though our shift started at 7 a.m., we had to be present, accounted for and in his truck by 6:45 a.m. in order for him to have us on the job by 7. And when we completed a good hard day’s work, he showed his appreciation as he dropped us back in the dirt parking lot with a “Thanks for the good work today boys. I’ll see ya tomorrow if the creek don’t rise.”

Memory is a funny thing in that sometimes what you remember are the silliest and unimportant moments, like snapshots. Everette had been giving us city boys some good-natured shit about our hair for sometime. One hot day, while we were eating lunch way up on the hill in woods, sitting down around the fence holes we were digging, Everette stared at me for a minute. Then he said, “I bet I could braid that hair of yours.” I laughed, eating my bologna sandwich and said, “Well, give it a try.” He sat on a big rock behind me and commenced to braiding, and by the end of lunch I had two very imprecisely braided pig-tails hanging out of my hard hat. It makes me laugh to this day thinking about what this small town, ex-military fella whose own hair had never been more than a quarter inch in length felt doing that.  

The stars of the show on the job operated the heavy equipment. These were the skilled players running bulldozers, scrapers, motor graders or Gradall backhoes. So much of the work they do from atop these huge pieces of equipment was by feel and instinct because they couldn’t see exactly what their blade was doing. They had to feel it and know it based on experience. They were able to move earth with the precision of a surgeon. Cam, a former operator himself back in the day, loved to say that he could “scratch your back” with Gradall. These men were cultivated by the company and they tended move from job to job with Cam. They lived out of campers that they parked on the job near the parking lot or rented a room with other guys, leaving their families “back home,” wherever that might have been. They didn’t want to drag their wife and kids all around, uprooting them every couple of years.

They had names like Roger Goodnight, Willie Be and Flavius Haynes. And, of course, there were the popular Red, Whitey and Shorty. My favorite nickname was Titty Pie, an older bulldozer operator and one of the best in the business. A quieter man you have never met. He pretty much spoke with his work, and he was very, very good.  

The manual laborers, like the fence or pipe crew, came mostly from local hires, and tended not to have nicknames or legendary stories behind them. They worked hard, but with shovels, picks and spud bars, known more for their strength than skill. They came out of the villages and hollers nearby the job, the job that was cutting their land apart and running civilization right through it.  

I did finally work my way up to running equipment. Here I’m standing next to the D8 Caterpillar bulldozer I ran in 84, PA in 1975-1976.

Us boys from Durham made for a real topic of conversation for the good folks of Burnsville. To them, we were city slickers coming from the big city as we paraded up main street from our house to use the pay phone across from the one restaurant/cafe in town. Our hair and beards were starting to grow out meet the 70’s. We talked and dressed different…when we weren’t working. And, by the way, we knew we were different and we swaggered maybe a bit much.  

It was like living in another country in another time. And, we knew that with the end of summer, we would go back to college. They would not. Not then. Not ever.

So that began my relationship with West “By God” Virginia. I have so many more stories to tell, about working there, yes, but more about living there. The Farm, the Wallers, my buddies. I think it will be a good time. So, I’m going to do that in segments, sort of continuing episodes as they come to me. At least, that’s my plan. None of it is written yet. It’s a kind of a living writing experience. I hope you’ll stay in it with me. 

Back to Keystone XL pipeline. Turns out, I learned what many of you may already knew. There is already a Keystone pipeline that originates in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. The XL version will be a larger pipe that runs a straighter route to Steele City, Nebraska where it would tie into the original Keystone pipeline. This BBC article explains why it has been so controversial. 

According to this fact-check article from the respected source of the Austin American-Statesmen, the jobs lost by Biden’s pen stroke were temporary jobs, most only on paper, not hired and working yet. Most would only last four to eight months, and, all would end after the pipeline would be finished. After finishing the pipeline construction it would on produce 35 full time jobs to keep it maintained and flowing. Oh, and much of that small number would be in Canada, not the U.S. 

This is when “what is a job” matters and one piece of that definition lies in how long a job lasts. The government counts full time jobs a year at the time. Even if the pipeline does employ 11,000 different workers over the short duration of the project, since they are temporary, it would boil down to 3,400 jobs, not 11,000. And, after the work is done, the company is done with the workers. 

It’s very different than killing full-time jobs that could last decades and provide a career for someone. And, it “killed” jobs “planned,” not jobs of people working right now. It didn’t send thousands of workers to the unemployment line. 

Also, if you have any interest left in you for West Virginia, here’s a very good NYT’s article on how important it has become now that the Democrats have won the House, the Presidency and, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate. And how West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin holds a lot of power that could prove very beneficial for the state. At long last, it might actually get a form of reparations. 

Just for fun, here are the lyrics to John Denver’s famous song that just celebrated its 50th anniversary since Denver released it on his album, “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” Side note, it almost was written, not for West Virginia, but for Massachusetts. Here’s some cool background info on how it became the hit of 1970.

Take Me Home Country Roads – by John Denver, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert Danoff

Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

All my memories gather ’round her

Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky

Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me

The radio reminds me of my home far away

Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’

That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Take me home, down country roads

Take me home, down country roads

6 thoughts on “West Virginia. I hear her voice…

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