CAWTHON'S CATHARSIS - Dang Me, Dang Me, They Ort to Take a Rope and Hang Me-or Ship Me to the Smithsonian

By Jack Cawthon 2009
I feel I have made amazing progress during my lifetime, which has not yet ended as of this writing, coming out of a dead end holler in Gilmer County and ending up in Morgantown, a cultural and educational center of the state, if somewhat skewed, or screwed, your choice, toward the north too near the Pennsylvania line. (Me or Morgantown, again take your choice.)

Ever wishing to further my knowledge and hang around with my betters, as well as to stay off senility as long as possible, I enroll in what I call "old folks' classes," a politically incorrect term to many, especially old folks, but which I refuse to gloss with "senior" as when you are old, you are old, to paraphrase the late Jerry Reed, country music legend, who was hot, when hot, but not, when not.

I found myself recently in a class refreshing West Virginia history in which the first session consisted of a documentary which had been produced for public television portraying various stereotypes of "hillbillies" as played out in movies and TV.

Of course, the Beverly Hillbillies from TV was one such example and there were other clips from shows that once had the late A. James Manchin ranting and rambling and fuming, which in turn caught the attention of national media, which in turn gave the producers of such taunting excellent free national publicity, causing them to laugh, not at us, but at an inside joke as they made their way to their bank windows.

Most of the people in the class were "outsiders." I could tell by their speech and comments, which further placed on guard my clannish, suspicious, wary hillbilly mind. You see, I identified with many of the portrayals in those clips, but for once, to keep my secret from all those sophisticated outsiders, I kept my mouth shut.

I was born in a converted log cabin four miles from the nearest hard road and up a holler as far as one could stick a butcher knife, attended a one-room school, waded the crick, used a one-holer and, in addition to all these attributes, may have acquired some degree of in-breeding. As for the latter, which causes screams of denial within and ribald jokes outside, I can only inject my own opinion that if one has a good-looking cousin, or other close relative, what the heck!

I sat there in that class knowing that I should volunteer to become an exhibit in a sort of show and tell, or not tell all, of what a real live hillbilly in most culturally obsessed Morgantown looks like and prove to the world that the species is all right, even if not so well.

This would have been in deep contrast to those West Virginians portrayed in the public TV documentary, who were there to prove to the world we are nothing like "those people" who are stereotyped.

Kate Long, with her soothing lilt of southern West Virginia who has spent her life as a professional West Virginian by her writings, public radio and TV appearances, and music, probably would deny ever knowing me, although I once served as a consultant for a "literary magazine" of which she was editor when a student and I on The Payroll in the publications unit of a Morgantown university.

The magazine turned out great, Kate was a great person to work with, and I was brought a little closer to culture, a welcome change to the agricultural bulletins I usually worked with, but, alas, it never took.

Also featured in the documentary was Denise Giardina, by all accounts an excellent writer. I do not doubt for one instance that she knows well her Italian heritage and coal camp environment from which she emerged. But put her up a holler of my youth in central West Virginia—maybe not so much.

And then there was Pinckney Benedict, who has been declared a good writer by folks, who much like with pornography, know it when they see it, but whose writing I have never been able to endure for more than a page or two.

When he pronounced our region as "Appa-LAY-cha" I wanted to scream. If you are in it, and step in it, and frolic and roll in it, say it right! Benedict, who comes from wealth, and who has probably spent more time out than in, I feel knows about as much about hill and holler culture as our Rent-a-Senator from New York, who graciously pays the rent to us for the honor.

And, now, I am sure, the question on every lip is what is a nice hillbilly person, such as I, doing in a place like this. I have often asked myself the same question. Maybe it's like being the token cowboy, a vanishing breed, a conversation piece for a classroom studying the hillbilly in theory, should anyone take notice, and the secret hope is they won't.

Anyway, I caught myself pondering such meaning of life as I headed to Big Puf. That is where I find my greatest acceptance and where the good folks know that what I have been exposed to in Morgantown is only skin deep and not contagious.

By golly, maybe someday a movie producer will find us, if my directions aren't too hazy, and make a movie. This may result in a living panorama in which the whole shebang of us may then be shipped off to the Smithsonian for exhibition right next to the cave men.