Left in the Dark by Sophie Ezzell
Author’s note: Italicized sections of this text have been taken from my father’s research report that details the living conditions and population of Calhoun County, West Virginia—the primary setting of this piece. See: Ezzell, Tim, Ph.D., Dayton Lambert, Ph.D., and Eric Ogle, MSP. Strategies for Economic Improvement in Appalachia’s Distressed Counties: An Analysis of Ten Distressed and Formerly Distressed Appalachian Counties. Rep. no. CO-16505-302-2009. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, February 2012. Print, Acknowledgements, pp. 71-77.
My father has taken me camping twice. The first time was too cold. We sat in lawn chairs with sleeping bags tightened around our waists. Dad’s coworker, Cat, had given us hand warmers to keep our fingers from turning blue. Dad squeezed them in his fists, occasionally raising the little white pouches up to his sagging pink cheeks. I tucked mine into my bra.
But it was okay that it was cold. All the clouds had floated to the other side of the silhouetted mountains, and the stars hung in the frozen black air. Bright and blue and clear. I saw my first shooting star. Dad saw seven.
Dad had to make the trek to Grantsville, West Virginia about every six months to conduct his research. Though he didn’t like camping, he didn’t have the balls to stay in the “Y Motel,” a small aquamarine building with broken red letters falling down the side. There weren’t any Hampton Inns or Marriotts. Not even a Motel 6. His only options were sleeping in a tent or facing his fear of mysterious mattress stains. He chose the former and packed an air mattress. But he didn’t complain because this was his job. To drive to this forgotten town and remind people that he hadn’t forgotten them. After his second visit he invested in a six-person tent and a portable cot.
This project was based upon a simple premise: In order to truly understand the challenges of Appalachian communities one must visit the region and talk with the people. To that end, the project team from the University of Tennessee traveled over two thousand miles to visit ten case study communities in eight states. Along the way we met and held discussions with over 100 community leaders, ranging from elected officials to community volunteers, health care workers to youth educators, bank presidents to small business owners, hourly workers to retirees, and even a parish priest.
Dad told me that he brought me to West Virginia on his work trip because it was important for me to see. See the poverty and the isolation and the stars and the mountains, the mountains that hadn’t been broken by coal companies and frackers. See the people and their smiles and their old winter coats. He said I needed to see the sky our ancestors saw. He said I needed to understand why I was lucky. And maybe all that was true. But it wasn’t why he brought me with him. Dad hates camping. He hates the pollen and the grass and bending over to hammer stakes into the dirt. He’s a soft man that sleeps with his head tucked between two goose down pillows. He took me out of school for two days because he didn’t want to suffer alone.
I don’t remember how long the drive from Charleston to Calhoun County was, but I sat in the back and listened to Dad and Cat complain about university politics and point out the landmarks that had become special to them. There was the wooden bigfoot cutout that a man had propped up in his front lawn. There was the rusted pick-up truck that was half buried in the ground. There was the little store that they always talked about going in but never stopped at. I think they liked to imagine it as a hokey little shop where Andy Griffith would buy Opie a candy bar, and I think they were afraid that if they ever opened the door it would only be a wall of cigarettes and day old bread.
Calhoun County is a community in crisis.
Sometimes it was hard for them to go to these places. They tried to see the good. The mountains and the stars. But sometimes they would have to step over needles to walk inside the courthouse. And watch fathers tell their daughters no to heart shaped cookies while waiting in gas station checkout lines because he just couldn’t afford it this month. And every six months they would return to the same sad stories. Addicted brothers and flooded buildings, lost jobs and broken families. It wasn’t that there were no happy stories in Calhoun County, those just weren’t the ones Daddy got to listen to. For him the happy stories were the ones he imagined inside that little store. Kids drinking cold sodas, a cashier with a picture of his wife taped to the register, and loaves of fresh bread lined against the walls. He wanted that to be the reality, and he knew that if he ever opened the door into the shop, all of that would fall away, and he would be left with another sad story he didn’t know how to fix. But one that everyone expected him to.
The people in Calhoun County thought Daddy and Cat were John and Jesus. They were going to save their town and bring jobs and people and food. But they were only academics. They couldn’t make water out of wine. They couldn’t bring light out of darkness. All they could do was try and hope and count the stars.
The main attraction according to local residents “is darkness.” The undeveloped rural county has little light pollution, making the night sky ideal for stargazing.
My mother would always tell me that I was my father’s daughter. I had her eyes and her blonde hair. I had the body that she had before my brother ruined hers with his big round basketball head. I even wore the same size shoes as she did. But she would always say, “You may look like a Bernard on the outside, but honey you’ve got that Ezzell heart and that Ezzell brain and that Ezzell smirk that your daddy gets when he says something too clever for anyone to understand but him. You two just sit in your little bubble and laugh at what the rest of the world can’t get. You two…you two…It’s gonna break his heart when you go away.”
When I was in high school my father bought me a telescope. We used to sit in the driveway at night and watch Jupiter spin inside the glass. It looked like a marble. A rusted glass ball separated by orange and yellow stripes with tan specks floating in the in-between.
On my first visit to Calhoun County, the first thing my father did was bring me into the barn. The barn was a large building with white vinyl siding and a red roof. It housed the kitchen and the bathrooms. Inside the barn was a row of long plastic picnic tables; sitting on them were boxes of t-shirts and registration forms. The floor was a cheap vinyl tile, the kind you find in grocery stores and public schools. I was afraid to look in the bathrooms. The whole ride up all Daddy had said was “I wouldn’t shower there. Wait until we go back home. Those bathrooms are scary—we’re trying to get them redone.”
Twelve percent of homes in the county still lacked complete plumbing in the 2000 census.
A heavyset woman with short gray hair emerged from the kitchen, smiling at my father and Cat. The woman was wearing the t-shirt Dad and Cat had printed for the event. It was a dark purple that had “Carpe Noctem” printed on the front in bold white letters. It said “Seize the Night” in Latin. My father was proud of his wit.
I don’t remember this woman’s name, but I remember someone was named Shirley and this woman deserves something more than just “this woman.” She deserves at least a name, even if it isn’t her own. So Shirley it will be.
“Hey, Shirley. Need any help setting up?” my father asked. He then placed a proud hand on my shoulder and said “Oh, and this is my daughter, Sophie. She just applied to Marshall.”
Residents report that students who attend college often find themselves overwhelmed in a large and diverse environment and fail to finish.
Shirley tilted her head and smiled at me. “How nice. Marshall is just wonderful. And no, Tim. We’re about done here. But we do have something for you two,” she said, pointing at my father and Cat. She went back into the kitchen and came out with two hand-knitted coasters. They looked like small spiral rugs that you would find in a doll’s house. Dad’s was made with blue and green yarn, Cat’s pink and red. “Just our little way of saying thank you,” Shirley said.
Dad ran his curved index finger along the edge of the coaster. “Oh, well, thank you. Thank you so much” he said, his voice an octave higher than normal. His voice is always higher when he’s touched.
Given its status, Calhoun County is a compelling case study of the barriers and obstacles facing many of the region’s most troubled communities. At the same time, however, it also serves as a model of Appalachian resilience, determination, and improvisation. Residents and local officials persevere in the face of dire circumstances and, more often than not, prevail in providing important services and resources.
When I was in high school my father bought me a telescope. We used to sit in the driveway at night and watch Jupiter spin inside the glass. It looked like a marble. A rusted glass ball separated by orange and yellow stripes with tan specks floating in the in-between. I traced the blue glow that cradled Jupiter with my gloved, crooked index finger. Dad smiled behind me. He always felt a little bad when he told me it was time to go inside.
Residents and officials of the county feel they have no voice and are forgotten by their state and the nation.
The second time Dad took me to Grantsville it was too hot. It was the middle of May and I had just ended my first year of college. My father enjoyed toting me around to the locals and saying, “This is my daughter, Sophie. She’s an English major at Marshall.” He wore his Marshall hat and his Marshall Dad t-shirt. I still don’t know if it was pride or just his way of lowering the guard of untrusting Appalachians. It’s easier to listen to a stranger when you know he has his own stakes. A blonde haired, blue eyed stake with the same curved index fingers.
Local officials have little awareness or connection to regional development strategies and view such efforts with bitter cynicism. A road sign, designating the county as a “Certified Business Location,” was characterized as “bullshit” by a local official, who added “it does nothing.”
My dad likes to go to minor league baseball games when the weather is nice. The tickets are cheap and the hot dogs are good. In Knoxville we have the Tennessee Smokies. The players wear blue and red, and we all have baseball caps to match. Mom always tries to buy tickets for Dad’s birthday, usually a sweltering day in mid-July. I always dread having to stand up and peel my thighs off the sticky plastic seat when the last player strikes out. One year our seats sat facing the sun. I had left my sunglasses in the car and my hat at home. I spent the afternoon squinting with my hand pressed against my forehead. I looked over at my father, smiling with a bag of peanuts in his lap. He had sunglasses and a hat. I leaned over and swiped the hat off his head. The wind blew his golden-brown hair in opposite directions as he looked at me laughing, his oversized hat sinking over my eyes. At the end of the game he bought a new hat.
After we set up our tents, Dad and Cat drove me to the Foodland. The night before all they could talk about was the Chester’s Chicken that was inside the grocery store. Cat and I were strutting up and down the scuffed linoleum aisles of the store when she leaned over and said, “They have the best thighs. They have better thighs than fucking Beyoncé.” Her voice was low and soft, but it still sounded like excited yelling. I giggled and Cat put her hand on my shoulder.
The county has no car dealership and just one grocer.
My father stopped at the bread aisle and knotted his fingers in his still boy-like hair. He always says that once you turn fifty you’ll either lose your back or your hair. He can’t bend over without making a grunt, but he can still knot his fingers in his hair when he’s upset. He was counting the loaves of bread, one of his curved index fingers moving in a steady line down the shelf, the other twisting his hair into spirals. “The bread is stocked better than last time, but it’s still not ideal.” He snapped a photo and sighed. “Let’s get some chicken.”
Food choices at the grocery store are limited and the quality of fresh produce is poor. As a result, nutrition is an issue for many residents and diabetes rates are among the highest in the state.
“Daddy, can I get tenders?” I asked. He shook his head. “Sweetie, just because you can’t see the bones doesn’t make it not a dead chicken. You’ll still be eating a dead bird.” He paused for a minute while I widened my eyes, “But yes, dear, we can still get you tenders.”
He was right, it was still a dead bird. But at least I didn’t have to suck the meat of my dead bird off the bone like some kind of sadistic Baby Bottle Pop. My dad would like that sentence. He would like that memory. He’s always been proudest of me when I make him laugh.
The heat was better than the cold. I wasn’t afraid of freezing to death in the heat. The Calhoun County park had many poorly marked trails. I would start on a half mile trail and walk until I found a fork. There would be two white arrows pointing in opposite directions, neither indicated which path which arrow belonged to. I never picked the right one. I wandered from a half mile trail to a five mile trail then to a two mile trail. The walks were windy and confusing. I was always lost. But the sound of twigs snapping beneath my sneakers and the low buzz of cicadas made the rest of the world fall away. I just had to put one foot in front of the other. One. Two. One. Two. Nothing else mattered because no one else existed. One. Two.
During our travels and discussions, we witnessed firsthand the paradox that often defines Appalachia: the region is one of great beauty and a wealth of resources, yet remains burdened with pockets of poverty and privation.
I liked to follow the trees on my walks into nowhere. Occasionally I would stumble upon an old swing set or the broken echo of a boy’s laugh. On one walk I found a goose.
I did get scared once while I was wandering on one of the unmarked trails. I had been walking for an hour and there were only trees. Tall trees with veiny green leaves sloping above my head. No grass. No swing sets. No signs. Not even a goose to follow. And it suddenly occurred to me that bears live in the woods. And that all I had was half a bottle of water, a useless cell phone, and my daddy’s old baseball cap.
Many county residents rely on dial-up connections. Large portions of the county also lack cell phone access. Residents claim that some residents located in remote areas of the county still lack land-lines.
I didn’t die. I didn’t almost die. I trudged my way back to the campsite and fell asleep in my dad’s portable bed, my head pressed underneath his goose down pillow. When I woke up he was sitting on the edge of the inflatable mattress with his hand on my ankle. He used to sit like this when I was sick. He would press his palm against my forehead and bring me purple Gatorade. And if we only had red he would drive to the store and buy purple.
The only other good paying job is working as a “pipeliner” - work that takes men away from their families for months at a time, with predictable effects on families and children.
We went to the barn for dinner. Inside there was a boy around the same age as me standing near the platter of barbecue. He had oily hair that hung over his eyes. I never spoke to him. But I watched him while he diligently carried boxes and folded chairs for his grandmother. He never complained. Never rolled his eyes. Never laughed.
Youth retention is an important concern, and adults feel that most youth are simply “waiting to leave.”
Dad was circulating around the room, talking to the locals and the astronomers, changing his tone between conversations. He winked at me across the room and I stuck out my tongue. He never could teach me how to wink.
I turned back to the boy, he was putting a baseball cap over his hair and getting ready to walk outside. I wondered if it was his dad’s hat. I wondered if his dad taught him the names of constellations. I wondered if the boy ever tried to make his dad laugh, and if he ever had to wonder if his dad was proud.
The Christmas before I went to college my father got me a Gore-Tex coat, duck boots, a tool box, a first aid kit, and an umbrella. He never wanted me to be cold. He never wanted me to have wet socks. He never wanted me to have to ask a man for a screwdriver.
It rained on my first day of college orientation. It rained and rained and rained. Before dropping me off at school, Dad had told me to always keep the umbrella in my backpack. It didn’t look like a very special umbrella when I first unwrapped it on Christmas morning. It was a dark navy blue with a faux wood handle and a shiny silver button. The first time I opened the umbrella was during that first week of college, standing on the wet sidewalk, surrounded by unfamiliar buildings and unfamiliar voices, and feeling like I should’ve never left Tennessee. I punched the shiny silver button and the dark blue canopy spread above my head. And for the first time I noticed that the umbrella had constellations printed on the inside. Orion. Cassiopeia. Draco. He always wanted me to be underneath the stars.
Dad bought the tonic and Cat bought the gin. It was their Grantsville tradition. Cat was excited because she found color changing glasses. I was excited because I’d never had gin before. Dad promised I could have one gin and tonic (a weak one) as long as I didn’t tell mom. And if I did tell Mom that I would tell her I didn’t like it.
Cat handed me a clear plastic cup filled with a bubbly liquid. A lime floated aimlessly in the cup, it made me think of Huckleberry Finn’s raft. When Cat dropped the ice in the cup it became swallowed up in a bright, sour blue. It was the color of a blue raspberry slushy. Cat made the same squeal that the girls in high school made when One Direction released a new song as she watched the cup change from clear to blue. From dull to electric.
I had watched my father sip many gin tonics in my lifetime. He always ended his drinks with a refreshing “ah” like the actors in lemonade commercials. When I tilted the drink to my lips, my tongue immediately retreated to the back of my mouth. Gin is bitter and tonic is bitter, and a single lime wedge can’t change that. My father watched me try to swallow the bitterness of his signature drink. He snickered. “Do you not like it, dear?” I stuck out my tongue and scraped it against my teeth. “What is wrong with you? This is just—just masochism.” I shoved the drink into my father’s hand and reached for my bottle of water. “I need it more than you anyway,” he said, pouring my glass into his own.
It is important to note that residents of Calhoun County recognized that things, as bad as they are, remain better than they were 50 years ago.
My lips were tight and my chin sank into my neck. I shook my head back and forth. “No. No. Nope. No gin. No tonic. I will drink whiskey and vodka when I’m 21.” My father laughed in his chair, “That’s the face you made when your mother tried to get you to eat lobster.”
“Fucking lobster,” I muttered to myself. My dad sat there with his cup touching his lips, unable to take a drink because of his laughter. I hit him with my baseball cap and he spilt his drink on his pant leg. And we laughed. And I wondered if this laugh and this moment would become a still echo frozen between the stars that we pointed at in the driveway with our crooked fingers and the West Virginia mountains that were holding us in the palm of its past. I looked at my daddy’s smile and hoped it did.
When I’m sad or scared or uncertain, I look for Jupiter in the dark. It’s a different Jupiter than the one my father and I looked at in the telescope. The Jupiter in the sky is a hole that someone punched in the universe with their pen. A small hole. One just big enough to look different from the stars. One just big enough to let you know you aren’t lost.
Apathy and a lack of hope are major problems. Many residents appear to have “given up.”
It rained in the evening. Clouds bubbled up in the sky and made the stars difficult to see. The astronomers packed up their fancy telescopes and complained to Dad and Cat about the weather. “We apologize, but we schedule these events months in advance. We can’t predict God,” is all they said. I sat in my lawn chair with my legs in a criss-cross applesauce position, the way I was taught to sit in preschool. I felt my chair sink into the mud as I raised my knees up to my chin.
Daddy came over and sat beside me. Red flashlights bobbed around the campsite, they were the only light allowed. White and blue lights distorted the eyes, making the stars harder to find.
“See anything yet?” Daddy asked. My neck was craned back and facing the sky. “I think that’s Orion. And that’s Jupiter.”
“Where?” he asked. “That one,” I said, pointing to the only dot you could see from underneath the murky gray clouds. “That bright spot right there above the tree.”
“Well, dear, that might be all you see tonight. Don’t bet on any shooting stars.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I can wish on Jupiter for now.”
Above all, we would like to thank the residents of the ten communities who participated in this project. We remain touched and humbled by your hospitality, kindness, and knowledge. Your frank and insightful perspective provided us with an unparalleled understanding of the region and made this study very special. This research is as much yours as ours and we look forward to sharing it with you.
Tim Ezzell, Ph.D.