Re my previous post, I have been in Harlan. There is no place on earth like Harlan Kentucky. I haven’t been everyplace on earth, but I would bet my original mono copies of ‘Out of Our Heads’ and ’12 x 5′ that nothing approaches Harlan.
My college girlfriend was from Harlan. After two months of exclusive and intensive dating (we actually dated back in the 70s..you know that car thing where the guy -usually the guy- picks the girl up at her house or dorm), it became clear that we were fairly serious and that it was time for the big invite to meet the parents. Considering that parents of everyone I had dated to that time either lived in Nashville or Dickson, my lack of preparation for seeing Harlan was roughly akin to a new speechwriter hearing his/her first speech mangled by the President. Outwardly benumbed, inwardly nuc-u-lur.
The first time I met ‘her’ parents, I contracted aphasia. Sadly, the disease endured the weekend. The impression left by that first visit was incredulity, piteous, and I’m sure frustration, followed by the belief that their daughter had the makings of a social worker, showing the world to a long-time denizen of the short bus.
Our relationship was lucky to have survived the weekend. Fortunately, future visits were enhanced by actual complete sentences, inchoate political opinions, and in some cases, conversation. I was given what would be the first of many Harlan and coal-mine area tours.
Over the years we hiked the mountains many times. I saw for the first time houses, actually shanties, built on a path but with no road in sight. I saw many kids who could have been up in that tree with a banjo….you really had to stare to see the eyebrows. I saw kids with what looked like scurvy and I saw coal mine owner’s houses that were hillside palaces.
I saw the vestiges of our version of the caste system. I saw the results of the union wars. I saw a hospital that wouldn’t treat a coal miner until the 1970s. Coal miners were often paid in script that could only be redeemed at the ‘company store’. These truths were more than just another verse of a popular folk song.
I also saw many mountains that seemed pristine at first glance, but that truthfully had been irreperably scarred by slash of the strip mine. I saw mountains that had been ‘topped’. I saw beauty and poverty that I really didn’t believe existed in the 20th century United States.
I became close dear friends with my girlfriend’s parents. In fact, when I was later unceremoniously dumped, part of my anguish was the thought that this meant I also broke up with her family. I soon realized that true friendship and love can endure anything, and I continued to visit Harlan, Kentucky during my one year in Knoxville (aborted law career that is best left to describe in another really boring post).
I will say I was depressed, adrift and prone to long bouts of self-pity during my year in Knoxville. I had lost my girlfriend and I HATED law school. I retreated to Harlan many weekends (and a few entire weeks later in the year). I learned to love the alien world that seemed to be contain many shades of gray and world-class weariness. Coal mining can wear a person out in ways most of us can’t imagine.
The Harlan parents became ‘in loco parentis’ during a long sad year. I was prepared to head to graduate school when a friend called and encouraged me to go to New York and help save the world. We moved to Brooklyn, and I soon met a wonderfully incredibly shy woman who later become the woman with whom I have spent nearly 30 years. Meeting her made me realize that my college girlfriend had been wise about parting ways. I also met a man who later became one of my best friends.
Many years later, that man, one of the best friends I’ve ever had, managed to hook up with my college girlfriend. They married a few years ago. I was able to catch up with my Harlan ‘parents’, and learn that bad health had overtaken these wonderful vivacious people.
My recent trip to Harlan was to pay tribute to my ‘other’ mother, a woman who accepted me despite a horrible first impression, a woman who defined the word ‘welcome’ for me and who continued to be a loving part of my life even after her daughter had moved on. She probably knew that we ‘weren’t to be’, but after a point it didn’t matter.
The pathology of a small coal mining town in eastern Kentucky is far different than a town called Liberty in Texas. The Texans were in Liberty because they felt free and thankful to have escaped from the crowds and coal-smoked eastern states. Many of the people were in Harlan because they had to be, or because their wagons couldn’t make it through the Cumberland Gap to the beauty of east Tennessee and beyond.
The worst aspects of religion and religious types always prey on the poor, continuing to afflict the afflict rather than the converse. God and Jesus are thrown at you like stones in this part of the world. God is harsh and etched in stone and may be forgiving, but only if you earned it.
I’ve seen funerals in two small towns that couldn’t be more disparate. Sadly, funerals are what brings a lot of us together. We travel from afar and share stories, tears, and grace. We lose our friends, and sometimes our way. Harlan has been a wonderful and odd part of my life. I was thankful that a certain family was there at a time when I seemed to lose my way and a whole lot more.
I’m also grateful to my wife who understood that I needed to leave in the middle of the night and drive back to that world. I should also mention that a certain night-owl in Memphis gave me great help in staying awake late at night and despite my boring and somewhat morose nature that night, stayed with me for quite a few miles.