In the beginning
Demian’s Farnworth’s autobiographical story, “The Education of a Writer,” begins with The Year of Falling Apart. He takes us to a specific time when the pain was great enough to force change. Demian pans the camera, opening the door and baring his soul, as he moves on to jump back in time, then ahead, traveling on towards the writer he is now. I’m captivated by Demian’s story, and I wrote about it earlier, even bringing a little of my walk-and-talk with Gurney Norman, another writer well worth his salt, into the mix.
But this isn’t Demian’s story, or Gurney’s story … it’s mine. And it’s a story worth telling, if even to myself and for my own purging. Writers are like that, you know. They don’t let the cat out of the bag in order to sell it to the highest bidder. They let the poor critter out because it needs to be out. It needs to reclaim its right to freedom.
MY STORY BEGINS in a place America has all but forgotten — deep in Appalachia. When Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty from the front porch of a miner’s shack, on April 14, 1964, he was standing maybe 60 miles from my birthplace. And, had Johnson pushed on further down south, deeper into Appalachia, he would have found the poverty even more crushing and the riff between rich and poor even deeper than his photo-op in Inez offered.
I was born in a company town — a place where the bosses ruled and the workers were controlled like pawns in some grotesque game, a place of ruthlessness and unyielding labor. My father was the first one in his family to leave the homeplace — where beans, potatoes, onions, and corn came from the garden, not from a supermarket, and a moonshine whiskey still brought in sufficient cash to trade for clothing and hardware. It was not a pretty trade.
My dad, Woodrow Sturgill, ended up suffering a broken back when a slab of slate rock fell from the roof of a “doghole” mine, crushing him like some subterranean bug. There was no worker’s compensation or food stamps in those days. We survived the year of his recovery only by the goodhearted charity of relatives and neighbors. And when he recovered, Dad loaded us up in an Oldsmobile and drove west until he was stopped by the Pacific Ocean.
My father eventually met a premature death, directly related to occupational hazards. But he was a proud man, and a born worker. For him, giving your all to the company was a badge of honor. Real men work, and they work hard. And they don’t complain when they drop …
The rich man
My story might begin with the landgrabbers who infiltrated Appalachia and with the rich men who disbursed them throughout the coal-rich region to buy up mineral rights from the hillbillies for little more than nothing. The lackies promised the gullible, carefree people the land would not be harmed and nothing would probably ever come of the agreement anyway — since the railroad would never make it that deeply into the mountains. They signed their rights away, and their children’s rights away, for a pittance.
Take a look at Appalachia today. She is torn like a virgin gored by wild hogs.
My story will talk about the rich men and their heritage. And my story will talk about the poor folks and theirs. And my story will wonder, wonder, wonder why in the world we cower down to the rich man and send our sons and daughters off to do his bidding. Probably nothing on earth amazes me more than that.
My story will want to be mentioned in Letcher County’s Mountain Eagle, the paper that has seen and covered it all, ever since 1907, when Nehemiah Webb, founded that proud paper. The Mountain Eagle has taken a stand against the environmental catastrophe known as “strip mining,” it has stood up for the plight of miners, and it’s called out corrupt public officials — all the time catching backlash from many of the very people it serves. It ain’t called the Eagle for nothing. It screams.
My story will move out West to reflect on the amazing similarity between the rich men who “made the earth bald before her time,” and those who turned the splendor of Appalachian into the ugliness of bare rock mountains and the stench of polluted streams. Lest I go too far, let me interject that both Appalachia and the western forests are stronger and bigger than the rich men. They’ve been dealt hard blows, but they will recover. The rich man won’t last forever. And the people won’t be beholden to him forever. In the end, real justice — not the rich man’s paid-for and bought-off justice — will be served. The Creator of all will see to that.
And my story will necessarily move to Navajo land, in southern Utah, where I helped promote an SBA business incubator, began learning about Mormon culture (and worked with some of the finest people I’ve ever met), chanced to write a bit of poetry for Jim Stiles’ Canyon County Zephyr (like the Mountain Eagle, another voice to be reckoned with) and first heard about something becoming more and more ominous: fracking.
It was at the Monticello Airport that I met one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the nation today: Frank VanderSloot. At the time, he was making frequent visits to San Juan County, and I was serving as the airport groundsman and VISTA Volunteer to the area. I had developed a time and life management program, The Roadmap to Freedom, to help folks move from the Dream stage of an idea to the Action stage, and I was teaching the The Roadmap to prisoners at the county jail every Friday night. Frank invited me to come to work for him. And, thinking he wanted to take my work to an international corporate level, I accepted a Learjet ride to Idaho Falls and signed on … but almost three years later, having studied Frank VanderSloot and Melaleuca, Inc. fastidiously …
My father left the farm for a coal mine. I had left the country for a cube farm. Neither decision made good sense.
That experience gave me a close-up look at power. Times have changed — whereas the coal magnates of my father’s day used thugs and bullets to enforce their desires, today’s rich man is more likely to use the courts and lawsuits. Any way you cut it, though, the stress of maintaining control over sprawling enterprises takes its toll on the rich man too. I’ve seen Frank burdened down with the weight of pressure from journalists and political enemies, and I’ve seen him stand up for hours to shake hands with mourner’s at his son’s funeral. He’s some kind of guy, Frank VanderSloot. He has his faults, sure he does. That isn’t surprising; he is made of flesh and blood. No, the really surprising thing I saw in Frank is that he’s human. He has a heart, and he cares about people — yet he is 92nd on the list of the top 100 private landowners in America (2012). To have that much wealth is, to me, almost inconceivable. And to burden the responsibility for it, nothing short of amazing. There is plenty to envy about Frank VanderSloot — but his immense wealth is not one of them.
When I think about it, I’m really not all that big a part of my story. I’m a nobody. A little guy from Appalachia. Someone who has been to the bottom of the bottle and back. Someone who has failed time and time and time again in relationships, in career choices, and in life. Guys like me are a dime a dozen.
But my experiences … now those are precious. I was born in 1953, and I’ve spoken with people who were born in the late 1800′s. I lived in a hand-built log cabin, with no electricity or running water, when I was a boy. I didn’t see a color television until I was maybe nine years old. It was amazing. The generations spanned by my father and me weave the thread that has brought us all to right where we are today.
I’ve had plenty of joy in my life, and I’ve had plenty of sorrow — much brought on by myself. I’ve traveled from coast to coast, and I’ve worked blue collar and white collar jobs. My perspective is important — not because it is mine, but because it is that of an observer with first-hand knowledge of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we appear to be headed.
I look forward to trading ideas with you, as we journey along and reflect on lessons learned in the saga of The Rich Man and Me.