Have you read the book “Hillbilly Elegy”? I have, and I hope readers realize that J.D. Vance’s story is not the story of all families that have come out of Appalachia, both those with origins there as well as those who have opted to remain there. His story reinforces stereotypes and perpetuates an American consciousness that says of all the ethnic American groups, this is the only one that can be spoken of in such a derogatory way without raising a single eyebrow.
I spent a good part of last week with a sister and three first cousins and their families, a total of 40-plus, in Appalachia.
We gathered at the Benham Schoolhouse Inn in Benham, Ky., the high school our mothers and father attended, which has now been converted to an excellent inn. Inn manager and Appalachian Hospitality Group president C. Travis Wharf says of the inn, “I call these mountains home. I have an appreciation for what our leaders are working toward, making us a tourist destination. I see the value in this old building from an historical perspective. The value is in our people, both living and those who have left legacies for us to embrace and enjoy.
“We are one of the richest areas in the country. Our riches here are our history, our stories, our ancestors who came to America to have a better life. After almost 100 years since its opening, this building is full of life with families making new and happy memories. We are charged with preserving and honoring this building.”
We were in the Tri-City area of Harlan County, Ky, to honor Major William Ellis Adams, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, born in 1919, died in 1991. A bridge in Cumberland to be built this year will be named in his honor. Not only did relatives attend, but also a representative of the first Masonic lodge he joined and a large contingent of his fellow soldiers from the Tri-City VFW Honor Guard Post 5171. Following a ceremony at the Central Baptist Church, the honor guard provided a 21-gun salute, “Taps,” and presentation of an American flag to Adams’ youngest daughter, Reagan Kichens, at the Huff Cemetery.
With almost two dozen children in our group, we wanted them to learn something about their historic hero Major Adams, but also about the area where coal is no longer king (The population in the Tri-City area of Cumberland, Benham, and Lynch has declined to an estimated total population in 2016 of 3,212 when in the 1940s the population of Lynch alone was more than 10,000).
Major Adams, my mother’s brother, had a dispute with a teacher at Benham High School and dropped out. His plan was to work in the thriving coal mines; however, family legend indicates that at the mines where he applied, his mother followed close behind to tell prospective employers, “I’m a widow, and I don’t want my only son to die in the coal mines.”
With no job in the coal mines, Adams joined what was then the Army Air Corps, later in 1947 to become the U.S. Air Force. He learned to fly at Chanute Field in Champaign County, Ill., was the first to fly solo in his class, and was one of the pilots running to get his plane airborne when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would live in infamy. History tells us that only five U.S. pilots were able to get their planes airborne that day, and Adams was not one of them.
From Pearl Harbor, it was on to the European Theater, where he flew B-17 bombers. From there, he was in Occupied Japan until the Korean War broke out in 1950. Men and equipment from World War II were used in that war, and Adams flew B-17s and B-52s. It was back to Occupied Japan and then retirement — for a short period. He and his family then settled in Warner Robins, Ga., where he became a civil servant at Robins Air Force Base. With a team of seven men (including three others from that base and four from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base), Adams worked for 10 years on the flight logistics of the F-15, an all-weather tactical fighter aircraft which debuted in 1972.
To educate our young relatives to the riches of Harlan County, I put together a two-page, single -spaced handout on the must-see attractions in the area. Items on the list ranged from Portal 31, an underground mine tour, to Rebel Rock where Rebels hid from the Union army in an area with widely-divided sentiments during the Civil War to ATV trail heads and zip lines to monuments that indicate the names of long-deceased male relatives who worked in the coal mines.
Our current family bears no resemblance to the family from which we came: Viva Moore Adams, born in 1895 and died in 1991, and William Stephen Adams born in 1891 and died in 1931. Our ancestors were white who emigrated from western Europe.
Today our family reflects the population of the U.S. with marriages, divorces, adoptions; Republicans and Democrats; Catholic, Protestant, and no religion; African American, Hispanic Americans, and Anglo Americans; some high school graduates and many with graduate degrees representing a range of disciplines and occupations.
I like this diversity and was especially pleased that the states of Texas, Wisconsin, Ohio, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky were represented in our group. Ages ranged from 5 years to 80 years.
Back to Vance’s book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” An elegy is a song written to lament the dead. Thank you very much, Mr. Vance, we are alive and thriving, eager to learn about and embrace our Appalachian heritage even as we move into the larger world, assuming our leadership roles in government, education, health care, manufacturing, and in enterprises yet to be conceived.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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