In the early 1950s, my paternal grandfather died in prison after killing a man in what he claimed was self-defense. He was poor, uneducated, and living in a place and time when both of those things meant that he didn’t have much on his side, despite the perfect American dream being portrayed on television shows. His public defender barely showed up. He died after being hidden away in an icy basement of an overcrowded facility.
He left my grandmother, Mae, to raise nine children on her own. She had been a schoolteacher and was the daughter of a prosperous store-owner. But teaching jobs were fewer now, and no matter how many doors she knocked upon, she could only find work at a very popular local restaurant that eventually became the first Kentucky Fried Chicken. She had no car and often had to hitchhike to make the nine-mile journey into the town of Corbin. Sometimes Colonel Sanders himself gave her a ride home, but only to the mouth of the holler since her road was so muddy that it was often impassable. Why should the county grade the road of a handful of hillfolk, even though they paid their taxes?
Welfare as we know it now had not completely been formed by this time, but nonetheless my grandmother took the least amount of public assistance she could. Still, she did receive assistance while also working like a dog and was thankful for it the rest of her life. Even in her 80s she recalled that they might not have survived without it.
Mae came home from frying chicken all day to take care of her house, fields, and children. The children themselves had to take jobs, too. My father was working in a local skating rink by the time he was twelve. Those older than him were forced to drop out of school to take jobs. A couple of them even had to leave their beloved home in Happy Holler to travel north for work.
Not one of Mae’s children had the opportunity to go to college. The mere thought of it was laughable. It took all they could do to hold onto their family farm, their heritage, each other.
My father volunteered for the Army in 1965 to escape this life of poverty in a place that was economically depressed not because the people there wouldn't work, but because politicians made sure that the region remained a mono-economy dependent on coal. That aspect of life here hasn’t changed much since then. Before he knew it, my father was in Vietnam.
He came back a different man, of course. A haunted man, an angry man, a thankful-to-be-alive man. A man determined to rise up out of poverty. He worked two and sometimes three jobs: as a mechanic at a local Shell station, pouring concrete driveways for whomever would hire him, and at a fiberglass factory where he rose up to become one of the lead supervisors by the time I was in high school.
All of my aunts and uncles made something of themselves. They became preachers or store-owners. One worked in city maintenance, another as a state plumbing inspector. They all worked so long and hard that all of their bodies became gnarled and bent. This country was built on the backs of people like them.
I was raised for the first eight years of my life in a little red-and-white trailer on the banks of the Laurel River. I was one of those folks that you might think of as “you people.” My mother worked in the school lunchroom. She wore plastic aprons. A hairnet. Her hands were wrinkled and paled by bleach. My father worked the third shift at the fiberglass plant when he wasn’t working on cars or pouring concrete. I grew up feeling guilty that I had more than them, although they never made me feel that way. But I was conscious of it. I knew the best way I could honor their hard work was to go to college, and so I did.
After graduation I lived within that same mono-economy. Why didn’t I leave, you say? Because it was my home. My heritage. I lived just one mile from that little scratch of land my grandmother had fought so hard to save, although she finally relented to the demands of the coal company and leased her land to them. They repaid her by pushing her infant baby’s grave over the hillside in an effort to get to more coal as quickly and inexpensively as they could.
I became a father and although I too was working everywhere I could-- helping to pour concrete, installing satellite dishes, in restaurants—I found it hard to support my family, too. We had a trailer on a hillside overlooking God’s Creek. Once again I was what people like to call “trailer trash”, which is, by their definition, apparently, anyone who lives in a trailer. I wanted to make sure my child was taken care of so we signed up on a government assistance program called WIC, which provides vouchers for healthy food. This program encouraged us to buy the healthiest food for our baby and greatly helped with the grocery bill. I didn’t like taking money from the government but I was working hard and I knew that someday I wouldn’t have to take it any more. And eventually, I didn’t. I’m thankful for it to this day.
All the while I was writing a novel that eventually became successful and allowed me to build a home debt-free. I went to graduate school and became a professor myself, continuing to write seven more books. I have tried to be of service to my country and my community to the best of my ability.
Around this same time my father began to use the services of the Veterans’ Administration, provided by the government he had served in the army.
After years of standing on her feet on damp school lunchroom kitchen floors and breathing in countless hours of cleaning chemicals, my mother is disabled and draws a paltry check.
Nearly everyone in my family has benefited from some kind of government assistance—veterans’ benefits, social security, disability, student loans—and they have worked all of their lives. Many of them were even going to vote for you. Mind-bogglingly, I fear that some of them may still vote for you.
But I won’t.
Do you see how we are the 47%, Mr. Romney? Do you see how you don’t understand the very people over whom you propose to preside? I bet you don’t.
Silas House is the author of five novels, including Long Time Travelling (2009), This Is My Heart For You (2012). House serves as the Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College and on the fiction faculty at Spalding University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. House was born and raised in Eastern Kentucky and is very proud of his Appalachian roots. He is the father of two daughters and has three dogs: Rufus, Holly, and Pepper. For more, go to www.silashouse.weebly.com