There’s a nostalgia most of us have when looking back to the summers of youth. I have a special, nostalgic love for little Cairo–pronounced CARE-OH– in Ritchie County. My extended family had a house there, inherited through a few generations of cousins, and we’d spend summers there. There were many picnics and reunions–for many, many years.
The kids would all be bunked in the front bedroom, where there was a double bed and two twin beds. We were small enough that we could sleep two to a twin, and three or four in the full bed. There was an old crib in another room, so the smallest babies would sleep with their parents.
The railroad tracks were just across the street and up a hill. Today, those are rail-trails, which I also love. But at the time, in the ’70s when I was little, the trains were still running. We’d set pennies on the track to be squished. If a train ran at night, we’d rush out onto the upper porch or push our faces up against the bedroom window to count the cars.
During the day, we roamed around, sometimes walk the tracks. I suppose parents might get arrested, or at least judged, for that now–letting their kids play on the tracks!– but it was a simpler time, and back then it was expected that you sent your kids out to play all day. They came back when it got dark. The only danger I remember was running into a family of skunks one day on a trail I was following through the forest. Eeek! (Luckily, I didn’t get sprayed. I SLOWLY. BACKED. AWAY.)
Sometimes we’d take a little john boat out into the Hughes and row around. Or we’d go to the old marble factory and see if we could find discarded marbles outside amongst the broken glass. Other times, I’d stay at the house and help grandma clean the floors or the old furniture with Murphy’s oil soap. Or we’d look at old family photos (some of which you’re seeing here).
Sometimes we’d take our quarters to Rowley’s in town, and buy orange sherbet “push-ups.” Then we’d come back and sit on the porch swing with a huge stack of Archie comics. On hot days, we’d all of us pile into the back of her station wagon and go to the North Bend State Park pool, or to the little pool up past the old high school. And if it was raining, we might play in the “secret passage” between two upstairs bedrooms. (It was a closet that connected to two bedrooms.) Or we’d just play in the rain.
Cairo today is a town of about 300 people. Tiny. And lovely. It’s similar to so many other little towns in this area and across the state. Cairo is one of the towns whose water supply will be threatened by the Antero Frack Waste Disposal project.
I want to talk about Cairo, because I want people to understand what is in jeopardy. It was a Norman Rockwell childhood in many ways when I spent time there.
The people who live here still: they’re real, living and breathing people. We have raised families here–some of us for generations. We love our children. We love this way of life.
But if you wonder why there is so much despair from poor whites, you can start by looking at the attitude we get from the extraction industries: we are animals. Animals to them.
You think I exaggerate? I wish.
Listen to this quote from “Marcellus Drilling News” expressing anger that what they call the “Help Antero” bill was narrowly defeated this past legislative session:
“Hundreds of nuisance lawsuits (“they’re too loud, “they leave the lights on too late,” “I don’t like the truck traffic”) have been filed against Antero and other drillers. The lawsuits against Antero have been combined into a class action lawsuit…. It’s a back door way to bring down a company–like a pack of hyenas attacking a giraffe. If the pack is big enough, it can kill its prey. Senate Bill (SB) 508 was meant to stop this insanity…”
Consider that for a few moments. People–strike that–CITIZENS–taxpayers, voters–who complained were ignored, threatened, ridiculed. Called animals. We know Antero has struggled with spills, fires and explosions, some of which have led to deaths and the contamination of drinking water wells.
When forced to take legal action to try to protect themselves–and legal action is not something poor people can take lightly, because being poor is an obstacle to justice–my neighbors are called animals. Rather than industry officials thinking to themselves, “Gosh, how can we be more considerate of this neighborhood?” they mock the people they’re oppressing.
We are not a “pack of hyenas” for valuing our peaceful acreage and our porch swings and the back 40, where grandpa taught us to hunt, and where we snagged our first deer… where we might get our Christmas trees.
White despair. The Guardian has discussed how the white working class is “mocked and forgotten.” They point out how the conservative magazine “National Review” attacks poor white communities like ours. Considered among the cognoscenti of the GOP, the writers of the “National Review” were evidently angry about support for Trump in communities like ours. But their response to that fact is more than a little mind-numbing:
“[Kevin Williamson, writes that poor white communities are] filled with welfare dependency, drug and alcohol addiction, and family anarchy – and then proclaims:
“‘Nothing happened to them. There wasn’t some awful disaster, There wasn’t a war or a famine or a plague or a foreign occupation. … The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.’
“A few days later, another columnist, David French, added:
“‘Simply put, [white working class] Americans are killing themselves and destroying their families at an alarming rate. No one is making them do it. The economy isn’t putting a bottle in their hand. Immigrants aren’t making them cheat on their wives or snort OxyContin.’
“Both suggested the answer to their problems is they need to move. ‘They need real opportunity, which means that they need real change, which means that they need U-Haul.'”
Really? Struggling white working class communities deserve to die?
And the solution of conservative elites–if we want their advice–is that we should just leave? Some readers might understand why those of us of Scottish ancestry view this push to remove us as the brutal new Highland Clearances. “Get out, we’d like to profit from what you’re sitting on!”
Trump is popular here. So was Bernie. They are the two candidates who appealed with the most populist messages, and who seemed to offer appealing solutions, even though the solutions were not the same. Personally, I believe we’re all in this together, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation and so on.
But that said, I do understand how easy it is for some to misdirect their despair and anger from real economic jeopardy… and aim it at other vulnerable communities. Because that’s what corporate politicians want, you know? And there are some in both parties.
Essentially the right argues that when you give money to rich people, it incentivizes them. But if you give it to poor people, it makes them lazy. The right-elite is blaming poor lazy whites who “deserve to die,” but they want those same people to blame poor immigrants, or blacks, or latinos…
The left simply argues that they’re not really owned by special interests.
That’s why we need the money out of politics.
They want us to tear each other apart. We’re all in this together—or should be. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that, which is why he began his “Poor People’s Campaign” in 1968.
And when those brothers told me what they were earning, I said, “Now, you know what? You ought to be marching with us. You’re just as poor as Negroes.” And I said, “You are put in the position of supporting your oppressor, because, through prejudice and blindness, you fail to see that the same forces that oppress Negroes in American society oppress poor white people.”
He said that in February. In March, the Poor People’s Campaign gathering occurred in Atlanta . And in April, he was assassinated.
I’d like to share a song about our little town, by Todd Burge, who wrote it about Cairo, the Cairo I remember from my youth.
Burge is a Wood County WV singer/songwriter, probably the most prolific of a proud tradition of WV singer/songwriters. He’s been on Mountain Stage numerous times, has performed at prestigious locations including CBGB, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and The Kennedy Center. He’s collaborated with Don Dixon of R.E.M., Grammy winner Tim O’Brien, and Kathy Mattea, among others.
Finally… I want to be clear that I am not a member of the class action suit referenced above. But you can be sure if these frackers came a few more miles and into to my neighborhood, I’d do everything I could to preserve what I love here, including taking legal action.
The suit is being brought by my neighbors, neighbors I’ve never met (to my knowledge)*, from a few miles away. I care about this issue because I can imagine my own despair if I were facing what they face. I would be absolutely sick. I care about it because even though I’m currently removed from the worst, I still experience moments of panic when I hear industrial noises I can’t identify, wondering “could that be the beginning of the end for my farm?”
I freeze, and listen with bated breath until I’m able to identify: no, it’s just a mower. Everything is okay. Everything is still okay.
For now, only…
* UPDATE: Turns out I do know someone who lives in the suffering area, although I’m not sure if she’s involved in any of the suits.