By Jack Cawthon 2003
There is both good news and bad news in the way West Virginians are currently portrayed in the movies. The good news is that we may be winning the battle to overcome the Beverly Hillbillies image; the bad news is that the latest movie presents us as cannibals.
I haven't seen "Wrong Turn," the movie. By the time I had read a mention of it it was no longer showing. Besides, I'm just too cheap to pay six or seven dollars for movie admission when I can see the same fare a year or two later on my overpriced cable fare.
The plot of the movie deals with some tourists who become lost in the hills of West Virginia. They stop to ask a gap-toothed, mentally challenged (sound authentic to you?) gas station attendant directions and shortly thereafter find themselves in a stew. You have to admit that this is a welcome change over the "Hillbilly" image that always portrays us as lazy no-goods, lounging in the yard filled with cars up on blocks and strewn with garbage, with a passel of half-naked kids running around while a harried woman leans in the doorway to a porch that is sagging from car parts and old washing machines. This image has always made me feel self-conscious as it resembles all too closely criteria in my own life, but, fortunately, we had only two kids.
Showing us as cannibals will at least lessen that image, to my relief. However, it shot down my opportunity at a big story I was saving for you Herald readers until I had prepared you emotionally. But now that you are, here goes:
I first heard about a family living on one of the far reaches of Blue Tick Crick from one of my uninformed sources. At first, I thought he had said something about cannabis, a large cash crop in the state sold in the free market without government subsidy, and which would hardly be of news value. But he repeated "cannibals," and I stood wide-eyed and dilated.
When the impact finally sunk in, I felt relief that the animal rights people would be pleased that no animals were being sacrificed in a meat-eating diet. Then, I felt a story might have merit as to how the daily sustenance of the family was harvested (DNR speak) by these somewhat quaint, rustic folk.
I asked my trusted informant for directions, which he gave me with a gap-toothed smile, while wiping the drool from his chin. I had no fear. As a practicing journalist, I am protected by the First Amendment, and as such, I felt some identification with the focus of inquiry, as I have many times been forced to eat my own words, which I suppose, might be considered verbal cannibalization.
I found the isolated farmstead far up a dead end holler. I immediately noticed the cleanliness of the yard; no junk cars, just a neat pile of bones here and there.
Two well-dressed kids, who I later learned were named Hurley and Burley, ran to meet me. Somewhat unusual for hill kids, they were carrying what looked like human hands and nibbling from them. A comely woman, as the old writers might describe, came to the door and yelled at the kids: "I told you'uns not to eat between meals!" and turning to me exclaimed, "Them kids just love finger foods!"
Her name was Wavajean and she lived with her husband, Buster, and the two kids. Buster had just returned from a foray into the woods. He had a big smile on his face, and said proudly, "I guess we'll be eatin' high on the hog tonight; I just harvested (my, the power of the DNR!) me a biker!" Wavajean replied rather solemnly, "Hon, you know how tough them bikers are! I'll have to parboil him all day!" Buster replied that he didn't care how she cooked him as long as he got the choice cut with "Love Mom" tattooed on it.
I thought it rather foolish to ask these folks if they were cannibals. And I felt a little uncomfortable at the hungry looks the kids were giving my hands with their long fingers, which everyone once said would be great for a surgeon or a musician, but which I carefully saved for typing out these stories for you dear readers.
"You've just gotta stay for dinner!" Wavajean cajoled. "We're having liver and onions." I hastily assured her that for religious reasons I was a vegetarian and had eaten a hearty meal just recently. I didn't want to hurt her feelings by explaining that onions do a nasty job on my stomach.
Before leaving, I needed to ask an important question: Do you folks feel that you are violating any sort of laws with your rather unusual diet? Buster hung his head, and said with a whine, "ýeah, he reckoned they wuz," and I expected a full confessional filled with remorse to come tumbling forth about a life that had brought them to the sidebar of society. He almost sobbed: "I know we need some sort of permit from the DNR, but I ain't got the money to pay it." I told him not to fret, that so far the DNR hadn't gotten around to cannibals. He looked relived.
As I left, Hurley and Burley stood waving goodbye with all six hands. I head Wavajean slush them with "I told you kids to stop biting your fingernails!"
I know that we all can be happy that Hollywood and TV have taken a new approach with us West Virginians. I've head rumors that public broadcasting is planning a documentary on the Blue Tick family, with the "dancing outlaw," the PBS discovery of a few years back, playing the bones for mood music.