Andrew Massey Living Lenoir’s Legacy

Pickin’ and playing on the porch as old as this Western North Carolina county

Andrew Massey 1

LENOIR, N.C. – Since the first European pioneers explored the Yadkin Valley and settled Tucker’s Barn – our modern day Lenoir – music has been central to our heritage.

Above, my buddy Andrew Massey takes a few minutes to pick on his guitar on his back deck. Constantly writing, he played two new tunes. Pickin’ and singing on your porch is nothing new in Lenoir or anywhere in Caldwell County. It’s a way of life. Musicians thrive off of each other and the heritage is continued!

It’s always a joy to enjoy the creative offerings of Andrew and his many friends. Indeed, he is part of Sycamore Bones, a local band that plays regionally and played an electrifying set in the 19th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase.  (Don’t miss the 20th annual Showcase on March 10. Read about it here).

One thing I concluded for certain from listening to Andrew offer his latest creations on an unseasonably warm and beautifully sunny February afternoon – the arts community truly is the shining light of Lenoir.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.

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West Virginia Teachers Authorize Statewide Strike

Rallies across the state point to plight of state’s working class heroes

NOTE: This article is reprinted with permission from the World Socialist Website. The original article is here.

By Nancy Hanover
12 February 2018

A statewide meeting of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) in Flatwoods on Sunday announced that county-by-county balloting showed overwhelming support throughout the state for a teachers’ strike.

West Virginia teachers, now paid 48th lowest out of 50 states in the United States, are demanding an increase in salary and oppose plans by the bipartisan Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) to increase out-of-pocket health care expenses. Last week, the state senate approved an insulting 1 percent annual raise.

WVEA President Dale Lee quickly followed up by assuring the state legislature and big business interests that the strike vote “doesn’t mean we’re calling something on Monday. The legislative process is still early. It’s time to look at the legislation that’s moving and…work the process for the best possible deal.”

The union executives are clearly concerned that they may not be able to hold back statewide action by 20,000 educators. Christine Campbell, AFT-WV president, remarked that there were demands for strike action even in the remote rural counties. “It’s coming from everywhere,” she said. For his part, Lee emphasized he was ruling out any “immediate action” while the “legislative process” continued.

Rank-and-file teachers, however, are determined to fight. Rallies were held in Preston, Kanawha, Fayette, Braxton, Marion, Berkeley and Jackson counties. At a rally in Wheeling, an Ohio County teacher told the press that her family’s monthly premium would double under the proposed PEIA plan, from about $300 to over $600 a month.

West Virginia teachers demonstrate at the capitol in Charleston (Credit:Sheryl Thomas, FB)

“This whole movement has been from the bottom up and I’m going to do my best to make sure that we demand actions that will benefit all West Virginia public employees and West Virginia’s children,” Nicole McCormick, a Mercer County teacher, told the World Socialist Web Site.

McCormick, who emphasized that all public employees need a substantial pay raise, continued, “I feel, and many others as well, that now is the time to harness this historic opportunity to demand what will progress and redefine West Virginia.”

Around the state there were reports that teachers were threatening to leave the unions if they failed to call a strike, while others called for broader strike action by public-sector workers who are all affected by the state’s move to increase health expenses.

In 1990, 22,000 teachers defied Democratic Governor Gaston Caperton and the state’s ban on teacher walkouts, striking for 11 days in the state’s only official teachers’ strike. Conditions for educators today are the same, or worse, than they were three decades ago when their pay was 49th in the nation.

Expressing the militant mood, reading teacher Karen Stroup declared, “Without us, the state of West Virginia would shut down,” according to local media coverage of a rally in the eastern panhandle town of Charles Town last Friday. “We’re not out here just for teachers,” Jamie Bowden, an English teacher, was quoted as saying in a report in the Journal. “We’re here for all employees in West Virginia, because what’s going on in the legislature affects all of us.”

Teachers and school workers in Cabell and Wayne Counties voted separately to call a one-day work stoppage February 16, the day before a mass statewide rally at the capitol in Charleston called by the unions.

Governor Jim Justice, a coal baron and the richest man in West Virginia, with a net worth of $1.6 billion, has remained adamant that the state will give teachers no more than an annual 1 percent raise—a de facto pay cut after inflation—for the next five years. Justice began his career as a Republican, ran for governor and was elected as a Democrat in 2016 and then moved back into the Republican column, underscoring the unanimity of both big business parties against the working class.

Last week, the governor gave vent to the backwardness and class arrogance of the West Virginia elite, saying that there was “not a Chinaman’s chance” that natural gas severance taxes would be increased to fund education.

The state senate has approved Justice’s 1 percent proposal, while state house representatives are calling for 2 percent the first year. Posturing as friends of the teachers, legislative Democrats are calling for a 3 percent increase, which is no less insulting for teachers who have not had a raise for a decade.

Far from speaking for the working class, the Democrats, who controlled the governor’s mansion during most of the last 100 years, speak for the coal, gas and timber interests that run the state no less than the Republicans.

By design, the county-by-county votes merely “authorize” the unions to strike. From the outset, however, the NEA and AFT have intended to use the vote as leverage in their backroom maneuvers with the governor—which both unions backed in the 2016 election—and the legislators.

The national AFT and NEA, as well as their local affiliates, are opposed to any genuine mobilization of teachers, let alone all public-sector workers, because that would immediately turn into a political clash with both corporate-controlled parties and raise the issue of why public education is being starved of resources in the state and nationally.

Having already sustained significant political and financial losses due to the state’s right-to-work law, the union bureaucracy is seeking to convince state officials that the unions are valuable to contain social opposition and help implement austerity if they are only allowed to retain their “seat at the table.”

WVEA President Lee signaled the union’s willingness to back a rotten deal in comments at a Princeton town hall meeting Saturday. “One percent is just the minimum, but when we get all these jobs coming and the revenue turns around and gets better, we are going to make that more,” Lee said, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

The WVEA president tried to dress up the legislators’ phony search for a funding source as “progress,” telling the crowd, Republican “House Speaker Tim Armistead wants a task force put together and wants us to have a seat at the table to come up with a solution to the problem.” The union official concluded, “I am cautiously optimistic the House leadership is really trying to come up with a solution to the problems.”

While the unions are preparing to call off the struggle, there is a growing sentiment among teachers for a broader battle which challenges the immense levels of inequality in the state. A teacher in the Princeton audience rebutted the claim that the state lacked “funding sources,” saying, “They [the coal companies] bled us dry and took the money to other states,” she said, adding that coal producing counties were left with no jobs, poverty and drugs.

Teachers also pointed out that the legislators were now looking to further impoverish the schools by eliminating the industrial property tax. The tax nets $140 million a year statewide and in Mercer County, 72 percent of it goes to the school system, according to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.

Students also expressed their support. Trey Henry, a senior at Martinsburg High School, told the World Socialist Web Site that there were 200-300 people who came to support the teachers, including students from Martinsburg and teachers from around the county. “I think being a teacher is one of the most important jobs there is, if not the most important one. They set a foundation, they are life-changers. It is crazy that they are paid so little.

“Here in Martinsburg, the opioid crisis is terrible. I can’t take my little brother to the park without finding a syringe. My dad overdosed on heroin. This has really impacted my life and it is my family and my teachers who were my foundation. Because of that, I plan to be a teacher and major in secondary education. Most students feel this way, even if they are not yet willing to stand up like I do.”

The opposition of teachers in West Virginia is part of a broader movement of teachers, after more than a decade of attacks on them and the right to quality public education, spearheaded by the Obama administration and now being escalated by Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos. Teachers in St. Paul, Minnesota face a strike deadline on Tuesday, while teachers in Pittsburgh, who have been working without a contract since June 2017, are currently taking a strike authorization vote.

West Virginia teachers must take the conduct of the struggle out of the hands of the unions by forming rank-and-file committees to reach out to parents, students, public employees, coal miners and every section of the working class for a common struggle to vastly improve public education and living standards. This must be bound up with the development of a powerful political movement of the working class, independent of and against the two big business parties, whose aim is a radical redistribution of wealth and the reorganization of economic life to meet social needs, not private profit.

Lenoir Library to Host Writing Workshop

Workshop designed to help adults improve skills and knowledge

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR,  N.C.  – The Lenoir branch of the Caldwell County Public Library system will be a hosting a Writing Workshop on six consecutive Saturdays, from February 17 — March 24, 2018 @ 10 a.m in room 5 at the Lenoir Library​.

“There’s nothing like getting together with like-minded writers, encouraging one another and offering good constructive criticism. A bond has been developed between us that will continue long after this class is over!!!” – A participant from the 2017 workshop.

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Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

I will be conducting the workshop; it will be quite similar to last year’s “Just Write!” Workshop at the library, but has been expanded.

Regardless of your writing skill level, knowledge of the basic rules of grammar, or writing experience, this workshop is student-led, with peer editing teams working together as a “community of writers” helping one another:

  • Improve general writing skills and knowledge;
  • Try or expand work on poetry and fiction;
  • Record the history of their family;
  • Improve technical writing skills;
  • Work towards seeking work as a reporter or freelance writer for magazines and newspapers.

This writing workshop include engaging activities, solid instruction and lots of writing! Most importantly, it creates a bond among the writers. A participant from last year’s workshop said: “There’s nothing like getting together with like-minded writers, encouraging one another and offering good constructive criticism. A bond has been developed between us that will continue long after this class is over!!!”

There is no charge and basic supplies will be provided. Laptop computers and other hand-held devices must be turned off or set on “silent” or “vibrate” during the session. Seating is limited, so reservations are required by February 15. For ages 18 and over. The most important characteristics of workshop attendees is that each person demonstrates evidence of a mind at work, works collaboratively, and is determined to make all six sessions.

You can learn more here.  Call 828-757-1270 or stop by the Lenoir branch of the Caldwell County Library at 120 Hospital Avenue to reserve your slot.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2018. 

Still Something in the Water

20th Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase a tribute to its roots

By Michael M. Barrick

LENOIR, N.C. – More than 20 years ago, at a Christmas party at the home of Kay and Patrick Crouch, a typically spontaneous jam session broke out – not unlike the ones that have occurred in homes and on porches in Caldwell County for generations. Present that night was David Briggs, who was then the executive director of the J. E. Broyhill Civic Center.

Recalling that moment recently, Patrick revealed, “He turned to me and said, ‘Patty, why do we not have this on stage?’”

Showcase SC&D

Strictly Clean and Decent (Kay Crouch, Patrick Crouch, and Ron Shuffler, r) are hosting their 20th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase

That simple question led to the first annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase at the Civic Center. The show was titled “It Must Be Something in the Water,” a tip to the long, seemingly unending population of musicians living among the hills and hollows of Caldwell County. Now, the 20th Annual Caldwell County Traditional Musicians Showcase is scheduled for March 10, featuring a few of the musicians from that first Showcase and others since, several new performers, and Briggs making an appearance.

“The Showcase was David’s idea,” shared Patrick. “This is a tribute to the original show. This is a tribute to the longevity of the series. I’ll be delighted to have David on stage. Also, Donna Minton, who has helped so much from the beginning.”

Patrick and Kay are teamed up with Ron Shuffler as Strictly Clean and Decent; they will serve as the host band as they have each year since 1998. Also, Roger Hicks and Lyndy Johnson, who performed in the 2001 Showcase, will have a set. “Roger Hicks and Lyndy Johnson are finger-style guitarists who are listed in the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area roster of traditional musicians,” said Patrick.

Patrick also noted that the artwork from the original Showcase was designed by David Courtner, and also expressed deep gratitude to Jeff Bentley, the current executive director of the Civic Center. Bentley, Patrick pointed out, has been there for every show, having been promoted from sound technician to executive director since Briggs left. “We are on solid ground due to the fact that he works hard to promote the show.”

It (the Showcase) has created a greater awareness of music and the folk arts. Folks have embraced that. It’s not only an American music we embrace. It’s Southern music. It’s Southern Appalachian music.” – Patrick Crouch

Despite having familiar faces this year, Patrick said that the fresh faces are just as exciting to him. “It makes me step back and take a reflective look. We have 12 people who have never been in the Showcase. Over 20 years we’ve had more than 200 musicians, and that is just the tip of the iceberg. We have an unlimited supply of talent. That’s beautiful.”

Patrick sang high praises for Conrad Boudreau who is recognized in the Unifour area as a mandolin teacher of young musicians. “He has come into our community with such energy and enthusiasm that he is influencing and encouraging other musicians.” Joining Boudreau will be Minton, whose popularity is evident by the number of times she has performed in the Showcase – in 1998, 2001, and 2007.

A previous performer, Charlie Carpenter (2005) will be joined by first-timer Todd McCloud. “They are known for their unique and powerful duet vocals,” said Patrick.

A couple typically associated with Lenoir’s furniture industry, Alex and Anne Bernhardt will play Cajun music on their first showcase appearance.

Red Rocking Chair, consisting of Jack Lawrence, Tom Kuhn, and Dale Meyer, who have been playing together 12 years, play Bluegrass music, but other genres as well.

Sarah Seymour and Nick Seymour, both of whom performed in 2010 as part of Sweetbriar Jam, will appear as members of Rooted, an acoustic band that plays Americana and roots music in an acoustic setting. Band members with Rooted making their first showcase appearance are Jimmy Atkins, Drew Gray, Seath Gray, and Morgan Smith.

Audience members will be also treated to the excellence of the Caldwell Junior Appalachian Musicians and the wit of Nancy Posey, taking her third turn as emcee.

Patrick notes that the Showcase is an important contribution to the rich arts tradition of Caldwell County. “It has created a greater awareness of music and the folk arts,” he said. “Folks have embraced that. It’s not only an American music we embrace. It’s Southern music. It’s Southern Appalachian music.

“It makes us a special place.”

The Showcase will be presented on Saturday, March 10, at 7:30 pm at the J. E. Broyhill Civic Center. Tickets may be purchased in advance at the Civic Center or by calling the box office at 828-726-2401.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2018.

The Tyranny of a Toddler

The Republican Party must stop its deranged leader now

By Michael M. Barrick

United States President Donald Trump must be removed from office. On New Year’s Day, North Korean President Kim Jong Un declared that a “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Trump took the bait, or just threw a temper tantrum for all we know, and replied via a tweet, “Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

I must defer to people better trained in psychiatry to address the “bigger button” metaphor.

This I do know; we are living under the tyranny of a toddler.

Trump GOP Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Unfortunately, we’re not the only people stuck with a child in an adult’s chair. The whole world is because of our nuclear arsenal. Throw in another child in an adult’s chair – Kim Jong Un – and we have the perfect cocktail for all those nuclear explosions I practiced for during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

So, Vice President Pence – or somebody in the Cabinet with courage and clout – must lead the effort to remove President Donald Trump from office under Section 4 of the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. What they have to do is prove that Trump is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

Check. His tweeted, taunting rantings clearly reveal a man incapable of handling the grave responsibilities of the office. Such behavior is not suitable from a leader in any workplace. I can see it from North Carolina. Certainly Pence and the Cabinet members can see it from where they genuflect.

The argument that Section 4 has never been used is a straw man. Let the lawyers figure out whether a 71-year-old man should be conducting foreign policy using a teenager’s platform that could start a war that would cause the deaths of millions of people.

The president has done enough. He has revealed – repeatedly – his cruelty and wickedness. His presidency threatens the life of every human on the planet. The GOP must mitigate the existential threat posed by Donald Trump.

So, we need to ask a couple of question of the Republican Party. Do you not care about even your own families, let alone all of civilization? And, as Boston attorney Joseph Welch asked of Senator Joe McCarthy regarding his Red Scare witch hunt of the early 1950s, “Have you no sense of decency?”

That is not all that Welch said though. According to the U.S. Senate website, McCarthy accused a lawyer on Welch’s staff of having ties to Communists. Welch responded, “Until this moment, senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” He continued, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

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Photo by Alex Martinez on Unsplash

The president has done enough. He has revealed – repeatedly – his cruelty and wickedness. His presidency threatens the life of every human on the planet. The GOP must mitigate the existential threat posed by Donald Trump. Is there a person of courage left in the GOP? Or shall we all die under the tyranny of a toddler tyrant?

These are the stakes.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2018

Preparing to Fight and Die on Distant Hills

Mattis suggests that troops read sobering Korean War history

By Michael M. Barrick 

FORT BRAGG, N.C. – When U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently advised soldiers to read, “This Kind of War: A Study in Unpreparedness” by T. H. Fehrenbach, I immediately walked over to a book shelf and grabbed my copy of it. It is just one of many books I own and have read about the Korean War, but I knew instantly why Mattis recommended it to the troops. Fehrenbach’s book is the ultimate After Action Review (AAR) of the Korean War.

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U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis. Photo by Monica King.

The diplomatic, political and military failures are mercilessly explored. So are the successes. However, based on other remarks that Mattis made at Ft. Bragg, I believe he was warning the troops to study about the dangers of unpreparedness.

I am particularly interested in the Korean War because my uncle died there on 12 July 1950, six years before I was born. However, to people who knew him, such as my dad and grandmother, he remained very much alive in their memories. So, his life narrative was an integral part of our family history.

His name was George M. Barrick Jr. I have written about him before, here. He was among “ … the majority (that) had fought and died” (Fehrenbach, p. 87) in the early days of July, 1950. His death, recorded in detail by a surviving companion, was horrid. Fehrenbach’s version is sanitized; “And on the retaken ground Jensen found six American soldiers with their hands tied behind their backs, shot in the head” (p. 87). In short, it was routine for POWs, especially officers, to be executed by the North Koreans.

In Korea, Americans had to fight, not a popular, righteous war, but to send men to die on a bloody checkerboard, with hard heads and without exalted motivations, in the hope of preserving the kind of world order Americans desired.” – T. R. Fehrenbach

With Mattis doing his duty – preparing soldiers for war with North Korea as diplomatic options dwindle – his advice is good for all Americans: pick up a copy of Fehrenbach’s book. Be prepared though. He pulls no punches. On p. 84, in summarizing the slaughter of American troops after their arrival in South Korea around 1 July, he writes, “What happened to them might have happened to any American in the summer of 1950. For they represented exactly the kind of pampered, undisciplined, egalitarian army their society had long desired and at last achieved.”

Ouch. Yet, he continues, “They had been raised to believe the world was without tigers, then sent to face those tigers with a stick. On their society must fall the blame.”

This last assertion by Fehrenbach is severe. Yet, he wrote this book just 10 years after the cease-fire was signed at Panmunjom on 27 July 1953. In that three years, more than 50,000 U.S. troops and millions of Koreans died. Since then, millions more have died in North Korea at the hands of its Communist leaders, people just as ruthless as the ones that shot my uncle in the back of the head after he had surrendered.

Fehrenbach and others also point out that the Truman administration had sent signals to North Korea, as well as Russia and China, that the United States would not go to war over Korea. In short, everyone miscalculated.

So, let’s just consider one more section from Fehrenbach’s book about those miscalculations. “In the first terrible, shattering days of July 1950, casualties among officers of high rank in the United States Army were greater in proportion to those of any fighting since the Civil War. They had to be. There were few operable radios with the regiments in Korea, and almost no communication from command posts down to the front positions.” He continues, “If commanders wanted to know what was happening, or make their orders known, they had to be on the ground” (p. 85).

He added, “The high-priced help was expendable, true. They too were paid to die. But it was no way to run a war” (p. 85).

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Photo by by Andrew Pons on Unsplash

No, it was not. And despite many heroic actions, including the delaying action in which my uncle was killed, we accomplished no diplomatic objectives through the military action. The 38th parallel was the demarcation line between North Korea and South Korea the day the war started and was roughly so three years later, when the cease-fire was signed.

Writing in July, 1962 in the book’s Preface, Fehrenbach asserted, “In Korea, Americans had to fight, not a popular, righteous war, but to send men to die on a bloody checkerboard, with hard heads and without exalted motivations, in the hope of preserving the kind of world order Americans desired.”

He added, “Tragically, they were not ready, either in body or spirit.”

It is no wonder Mattis wants his troops to read Fehrenbach’s history. It is full of sobering words for our nation and our leaders. Are we, as a people, committed to sending more troops to fight and die on distant hills in Asia? For too long, we have asked too few to sacrifice too much. That is symptomatic of a nation “not ready, either in body or spirit.”

Mattis has issued a wake-up call about the existential threat caused by unpreparedness – of mind, body and spirit. How shall we respond?

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017

Snow in Southern Appalachia

We have no choice but to slow down

By Michael M. Barrick

CALDWELL COUNTY, N.C. – Here, of North Carolina’s 100 counties, the elevation increase is the highest in the state, from about 900 feet, where the Catawba River forms much of the southern boundary, to the high Blue Ridge slopes of Grandfather Mountain, where the peaks kiss the sky at just under 6,000 feet far to the north.

Lenoir NC

Lenoir, N.C.

So, it can be raining at one end and dropping a foot of snow at the other. We live in the center of the county, near the base of Hibriten Mountain (elevation 2,211 feet). It is the western peak of the Brushy Mountain Range of the Appalachian Mountains.

Bird Houses 3

Home sweet home

Beginning yesterday morning and not ceasing since, we’ve gotten an early December snowfall; it isn’t unheard of, but it isn’t an annual event either. The prediction was 2 to 4 inches or more of snow. We reached “or more” within hours of the first flake falling yesterday around 8 a.m.

Bird House [peace] in snow

December is here

So, we have no choice but to slow down, enjoy the quiet and relax. It also seems like a good time to take a few photos and offer a prayer for peace.

© Michael M. Barrick, 2017.

Musings about Advent

A time of anticipation – and questioning

By Michael M. Barrick

Note: I acknowledge that other faith traditions have sacred observances now and throughout the year. I make no claims to an exclusive truth. Rather, I simply follow the advice of Mark Twain and write what I know about. So, having been raised by devoted Catholic parents, it is only natural that at this time of year, I ponder Advent.

LENOIR, N.C.  – As I gaze out the window above my desk listening to Christmas music and watch the ground silently and magically turn white from a predicted 2 – 4 inch snowfall, I am naturally nostalgic.

My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less.

Yet, as I generally do every December, I am struggling to hold onto what I believed as a child when the snows began to fall in the West Virginia hills. It is a time of anticipation – and questioning.

Naturally, as a child, my anticipation had more to do with the football or bicycle I hoped I was going to get on Christmas morning. Now, in my seventh decade on the planet, I find the season to be a time of questioning.

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Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

My fundamental belief is that Advent is about love – nothing more, nothing less. It has taken my whole life (well, not yet is hasn’t), to figure out that Jesus simply calls us to love and expressly forbids us from judging others. Amy Grant sings of it in “Emmanuel, God With Us.” The claim of Christmas is a claim of Incarnation, a claim many simply find implausible.

Even if you do believe it, living it is a whole different matter. Others often confuse me for Scrooge in December. That’s not true; I’m always a curmudgeon. The difference in December is that I find it difficult to not get angry since most Christians don’t seem to make much effort to examine and live the implications of the Incarnation.

So, I just get particularly grouchy in December. A lifelong friend, though, has helped me look at Advent differently this year. The question I ponder every December is eloquently and expertly addressed by the late Dr. Howard Thurman, a theologian I learned about from my friend, who sent me Dr. Thurman’s book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” published in 1949.

Dr. Thurman gets immediately to the point on page 1. “Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak.”  Forcing us to study the human Jesus in first century Palestine, Dr. Thurman adds, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?”(Italics added).

Dr. Thurman is not alone in asking that question. Several musicians cause me to consider the message and meaning of Advent. Among them are:

Each, like Dr. Thurman, gives us much to contemplate this month – and always.

© Michael. M. Barrick, 2017. 

A Lesson from the Worst Mining Disaster in U.S. History

Many West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome

By Michael M. Barrick 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was 110 years ago today that the greatest coal-mining disaster in United States history occurred in the small mining town of Monongah in northern West Virginia.

On December 6, 1907, at about 10:30 a.m., two coal mines – connected underground – known as Monongah No. 6 and Monongah No. 8, were destroyed by a series of explosions that killed more than 500 miners. While the official count listed 358 miners and three rescuers dead, the use of subcontractors by miners to increase their production, as well as the number of funerals, have lead historians to conclude that the number of dead likely exceeds 500. Located just south of Fairmont, the mines – owned by the Fairmont Coal Company – rocked the earth, destroyed the mines’ infrastructure, and sent debris flying hundreds of yards above ground as it obliterated above-ground entrances and buildings.

The disaster affected every person in the town, which was built along the banks and hillsides surrounding the West Fork branch of the Monongahela River. Despite its small size and hard living, it was a diverse community, made up of nearby residents but also a vast number of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. By 1905, Monongah had about 6,000 residents.

There is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, ‘a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands.’

Such human tragedy, unfortunately, has left many lessons unlearned. In fact, it suggests that a vast majority of West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome.

That was made abundantly clear yesterday with the report by West Virginia Public Broadcasting that “Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has officially filed paperwork to run for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.” Yes, that’s the same Don Blankenship that got by with murder, as I wrote here about the 29 coal miners that died in the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mining disaster on April 5, 2010. He is out of prison from his paltry one-year sentence for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards.

The timing of his filing is beyond ironic; it is downright contemptible.

Just as miners were changing shifts that early spring afternoon in 2010 at the UBB coal mine, an explosion roared through the mine. Instantly, the 29 miners working for Massey Energy were dead, families were devastated and communities of southern West Virginia were forever changed.

Clearly, since technology has improved to the point that major mining disasters simply need not happen, the problem is not with the science of deep mining; it is with the culture that guides the crony capitalism which has dominated West Virginia since the beginning of the industrial age.

West Virginians and the Stockholm Syndrome

Unfortunately, it is just not industrialist and politicians who are to blame; so too are many West Virginians. They simply vote against their own interests. It would not surprise me if Blankenship wins the Republican primary and defeats the Democratic incumbent, Joe Manchin III. Regardless of how the campaign plays out, there is plenty of evidence that West Virginians suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome, “a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands,” according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This notion was recently shared with me by a very frustrated mayor in a small West Virginia town long-ago abandoned by the coal companies, leaving behind a dying community and destroyed landscape in a once-beautiful valley carved out by numerous rivers. One might take issue with the mayor’s claim, which is based on his disgust with the overwhelming support that West Virginia voters gave President Trump and Governor Jim Justice, who this past summer switched to the Republican Party after being elected as a Democrat last year. Justice is also the state’s only billionaire.

What is not debatable, however, is the deadly history of the coal industry in West Virginia. That Blankenship has the audacity to file for office, exactly 110 years after the Monongah tragedy, suggests that West Virginia is full of people essentially saying, “Abuse me. Please.”

What happened at Upper Big Branch

This was the blunt conclusion of the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP) about UBB. Among the panel’s findings:
• The disaster was preventable because basic safety systems failed and/or were disregarded;
• These failure of safety systems was caused by a corporate culture by mine operator Massey Energy that put profits before safety;
• Massey Energy was able to operate with such a corporate culture because its dominant influence in the West Virginia coalfields allowed it to exert inordinate influence on West Virginia political officials responsible for ensuring mine safety; and,
• Those with regulatory oversight at both the state and federal levels failed in their roles as watchdogs.

In short, it is business as usual in the West Virginia coalfields. From the worst mining disaster in U.S. history, to the most recent disaster at Upper Big Branch, the words of Mary Harris “Mother” Jones are as appropriate today as when she first spoke them roughly a century ago – “There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice.” 

Monongah

At Monongah, both mines were less than 10 years old and were producing in excess of 12,000 tons of coal a day by the time of explosion. They were also considered state-of-the art. “Mines No. 6 and 8 both employed the most up-to-date, sophisticated ventilation systems.” (McAteer 64). John Nugent, the Immigration Commissioner for the State of West Virginia affirmed an advertisement made by The Consolidated Coal Co., Inc. seeking immigrant help. The mines, the company claimed, were, “Practically free from explosive gases.” (McAteer 74).

Obviously, the advertisements were mistaken or false. Thus, the all-too cozy relationship between operators and those charged with regulating them was formed. As the UBB GIIP reports, that has remained unchanged a century later. While the exact cause of the Monongah explosion was never determined – as much for political as scientific reasons – there was no mistaking that the influence the mining owners enjoyed with local and state politicians ensured that the operators’ interests – profits – always trumped the miners’ interests – a safe working environment.

Monongah headline

Headline tells of the disaster at Monongah

When the explosion occurred, 19 coal cars (each loaded with two tons of coal), being pulled out of the bowels of the mine broke free and crashed 1,300 feet back into the mine portal. The runaway cars broke lose electrical wiring, destroyed structures and ultimately disrupted the ventilation system. “At that instant, from deep within the mine an explosion rumbled, a terrible explosive report rocketing out of both mines, rippling shocks through the earth in every direction. … A second explosion followed immediately, and at the No. 8 mine entrances explosive forces rocketed out of the mine mouth like blasts from a cannon, the forces shredding everything in their path” (McAteer 116). 

Blaming the Victims

Even though an exact cause was not immediately known or even determined, it was not long before the miners themselves were made the scapegoats. Fairmont Coal Company President C. W. Watson immediately capitalized on the anti-immigrant feelings of the time, telling the New York Times almost immediately after the disaster that “… he could not account for the ignition of the dust unless it had been through careless use of an open lamp” (McAteer 158).

Conversely, Clarence Hall, a leading expert on mine explosions at the time, was in nearby Pennsylvania when the catastrophe occurred. He stated, “When I enter a mine these days it is with fear and trembling. We seem to know so little of these gas and dust explosions. Sometimes I feel the poor miner has not a ghost of a show for his life when he enters a mine.” (McAteer 159) 

Tragedy upon Tragedy

There were no organized rescue teams in U.S. mines at the time. However, the dangers to the rescuers, along with the reality that the effort was a recovery effort for dead miners allowed for time to organize miners and volunteers. Of course, rescue efforts – such as repairing the ventilation systems in the hopes of removing the deadly gases from the mines – were heroic, if unsuccessful. “What has to be said is that the rescue efforts were not successful and the equipment provided to miners to ensure their escape was inadequate” (McAteer 264).

It soon became apparent to the rescuers and stunned families of the miners gathering on the Monongah hillsides that the force of the blast, the lack of oxygen, and the instability of the mine combined for a horrible reality – virtually all those in the mine had perished. Recovered bodies were a horrid site to behold. Mine explosions “…inflict multiple-system life threatening injuries on many persons simultaneously. When the explosion is of a high order of magnitude, it can produce a defining supersonic, overpressurization shock wave” (McAteer 131).

Monogah-Mining-Disaster-1907-sign-CREDIT-Einhorn-Press-DOT-com

Photo credit: Einhorn Press

Injuries include damaged or destroyed lungs, blunt force trauma to the head and body, ruptures of the middle ear and eye, and damage to internal organs. Those that survive those injuries generally die from suffocation as lethal gases are released following the explosion. Rescuers, too, were at great risk. In addition to the instability of the mine and lack of oxygen, rescuers had no personal protective equipment or breathing devices. “Imagine a handful of reckless, bedraggled men going into the cavern with lanterns with sulfurous fumes in their faces dragging out the charred bodies of men, some with their faces burned off. That is what Monongah looked like. …In some instances the bodies were perfectly preserved and recognition was immediate; in other cases, the bodies were so badly disfigured or mutilated, identification was impossible.” (McAteer 143). 

An Unholy Alliance

Motivated by the example of John D. Rockefeller, who in the late 19th Century controlled much of the world’s oil resources, financiers from outside of West Virginia collaborated with well-connected Mountain State elected officials, judges, municipal leaders and state and local law enforcement to extract coal from its mountains, leaving not even the dignity of the coal miners intact. “The fact that the Fairmont companies, led by the Monongah mines, paid lower wages across the board meant that the three mines could sell their coal at a lower rate and thereby capture an increasing share of the markets, threatening the wages and unionization in the other states” (McAteer 101). Indeed, by the turn of the century, three men – U.S. Senators Johnson N. Camden and Clarence Watson, as well as Judge A. B. Fleming, controlled all of the mines along the Monongahela River in West Virginia, as well as the railroad lines.

Meanwhile, the company fought efforts to compensate the surviving family members of the dead miners. This is not surprising, as “In the early 1900s, families of miners who died in a mine accident or disaster had nothing in the way of economic protection and little legal recourse following a mine disaster. This was especially true in West Virginia where the coal interest was entwined with every facet of the state’s political, economic, social and legal systems” (McAteer 212).

Companies also vigorously – and successfully – opposed unionization efforts for decades. “The powerful elite of West Virginia on both Democrat and Republican side of the aisle united in their opposition to union organization efforts, and after seeing the success of the Fairmont Consolidation Company, the southern West Virginia mine operations that wished to build on the success met in secret to decide on some general plan of resistance to union encroachments based on the successful strategy employed at Monongah” (McAteer 113).

So, politicians debated and dithered. Meanwhile, miners continued to die at alarming rates. In fact, “On November 20, 1968, the Farmington Mine, a mine not five miles from the Monongah mine in the same Pittsburgh seam owned by the same company, Consolidation Coal Company, exploded, trapping seventy-eight miners” ( McAteer 262). Though federal legislation followed that disaster – the Federal Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 – the unholy alliance between coal officials and West Virginia elected leaders continued – and does to this day. For proof, we need look no further than the UBB disaster. 

We know we should learn from history. Yet, as we consider the human suffering inflicted upon the people of Monongah 110 years ago, and upon those of Upper Big Branch, Farmington, Buffalo Creek, Sago, Blair Mountain, and countless other communities since, we must conclude that we have not.

This should give us pause. The West Virginia state motto is Montani Semper Liberi – “Mountaineers are Always Free.” Though they may think they are, they are mistaken. In reality, my friend the mayor is right. The proud people of the Mountain State are not free; rather, as the Stockholm Syndrome illustrates, they “identify closely” with their crony capitalist captors and their demands.

WV State seal.png

© Appalachian Chronicle, 2014 – 2017. Michael M. Barrick is a native of Clarksburg, W.Va. He has lived also in Weston and Alum Bridge. He presently writes from his home in Western North Carolina, but continues to visit and work in his home state. 

Works Cited
David McAteer, Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster (Morgantown, W.Va: West Virginia University Press, 2007).

Upper Big Branch: The April 5, 2010 explosion: a failure of basic coal mine safety practices (Shepherdstown, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, May 2011).

The Sago Mine Disaster: A preliminary report to Governor Joe Manchin III (Buckhannon, W.Va: Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel, July 2006).

 

Learning by Teaching

Fellow students respond favorably to comic strip about Mountaintop Removal

Editor’s note: On Dec. 1 we published an article about Olivia Bouzigard’s efforts to educate herself and others at Appalachian State University about the deadly impact of Mountaintop Removal (MTR). I asked her to write an essay explaining how she chose the topic and method for teaching it. She explains below. Personally, I extend thanks to her instructor, Heather Custer, who has the rare ability to challenge her students to demonstrate evidence of minds at work. Also, the illustration is published again, just in case you missed it the first time. – MB

By Olivia Bouzigard

BOONE, N.C. – I am a sophomore at Appalachian State University (ASU) with a major in Public Relations and minors in Recreational Management and Philosophy. I am currently enrolled in a writing class where I was to take on the task of writing about an issue that I thought was important. When I came to ASU as a first year student, I was enrolled in a recreational management class where I learned about Mountaintop Removal (MTR). This was the issue that I chose to write about.

mtr_0388 courtesy OHVEC

Mountaintop Removal. Photo courtesy of Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

The first part of the project dealt with composing a white paper of the research that I had done. I interviewed several people, read books, watched a documentary and read through health studies people had researched about MTR. Finally, the second part of the project was to come up with another way to present this information. I chose to make a comic strip that combined all my research together into three simple illustrations. Then as part of the project’s requirements we had to somehow present this information. I chose to set up a contact table in the student union on campus and ask people for their time as I passed out my comic and taught them about MTR.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

As students passed by the table I would stop them to ask if I could have a few minutes of their time. For those who said yes, I followed with the simple question: Do you know what Mountaintop Removal is? Those who said they did, I asked how they knew what it was and asked them to give me a description. Many said they had learned about it at ASU or in a class in high school, which I thought was interesting.

I then asked them to give a brief description of what they knew about MTR. One student responded, “It has to do with our energy and stuff, right?” Another student said, “I know that it is bad.” However, no one could give me an overall quick description of it. A key goal of my project was to help students to be able to quickly define it, so in the comic strip, I start off with a definition of MTR from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those who said they did not know what mountaintop removal was, that definition is the one I used.

MTR comic

Illustration by Olivia Bouzigard

I then explained the comic to the students that stopped by. I shared that the mountain is upset because it has no say in whether it is destroyed or not. Coal companies are known for coming in quickly, destroying the area, and then quickly leaving. Their focus is only on the coal and nothing else. Then the comic moves into air that is upset and lungs that are upset. The purpose of this drawing is because many people are breathing in the particles from the removal sites and do not realize it, so their lungs become damaged. The final picture shows a sad house, a sad human and an angry crane. This illustrates that MTR not only devastates the mountains but devastates the towns and ruins them. It also is illustrating that the people of these towns have no say in whether these coal companies come and they just wait for them to leave. The angry crane shows that the coal company is just there to get the job done and leave.

Essentially, I wanted to illustrate a pattern that one cannot easily escape the effects of MTR and that everything that comes with MTR is devastating.

After presenting the comic to students, I asked if it was helpful. Everyone said yes. Comments included that they now know what it is. There were many comments of gratitude for sharing the information and acknowledgements that MTR is a significant public health and environmental issue.

Still, I am not done. I know that people have spent lifetimes learning about opposing MTR, so I intend to continue to educate myself about MTR, keeping others informed and finding alternatives. The comic strip was a first, but very powerful step for me and those I taught.

© Olivia Bouzigard, 2017.

MTR photo courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. To learn more about their work, visit their website.

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