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Down To The River And Pray

I read an article online this week that hit home for me. It’s about chemicals in the Ohio River and attached aquifers, and the cover-up that the chemical company DuPont has put into it. The politics aren’t why you should read it (though they are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking) but rather the way it brings out the human side of the tragedy. That’s what reached out to me.

You see, I live about twenty miles from where those events are taking place. Twenty miles.

Some days that’s not that far. Others, it’s a world away.

It’s a good article, and you can read it here. It talks about how a local farmer discovered that the land they sold to DuPont for a landfill for inert waste was being used as a dumping point for C8, one of those terrifying toxins that deforms babies and gives you cancer and is already in your bloodstream because it’s a key ingredient for Teflon. The article goes on to explore how this dumping has affected the people of these tiny towns, these blips on the map. Places where you know the people who are speaking up against the local employer are being ostracized something awful because they say the people at church won’t talk to them anymore. That kind of place.

Twenty miles away. So far, and yet…so close.

There’s one part of the article which brought it home more than anything. It’s a bit that describes how as part of a settlement with DuPont, the plaintiffs won $70 million towards “a health and education project to benefit community residents.” That seems like a lot of dough but isn’t actually, because it was shut-up money. But the lawyer got clever and used it to fund a health study that would provide further evidence for a more reaching case against the company.

Better yet, to make sure the study was thorough, they offered $400 each to any man, woman, or child who showed up for health tests. Four hundred, in a region that is one of the most economically depressed areas in the entire United States. A place that re-uses paper plates and shops the discount bin at the dollar store.

Naturally, everyone showed up. They piled in church buses to go get tested. The study had an 80% participation rate in a region that’s naturally suspicious of this sort of thing. And—and here’s my favorite part, the part that made me realize how real this was, that hit me in the gut—the people who participated brought their kids.

“We have families of five dragging their three kids kicking and screaming, and the parents are saying, ‘Yes, you’re going to get stuck in the arms—that’s $2,000!’” one local said.

I can imagine it, just. Mom and dad trooping in, one kid by the wrist, one running ahead, the third dragging behind, quiet, maybe a finger in their mouth. Mom stubbing a cigarette out, snapping that they need the money, dad finally getting sick of the crying and saying he’d smack whoever failed to shut up in the next ten seconds.

And then, the exam over, money in hand, they’d all go to the gas station across the street and buy ice cream, whichever one you want, a special treat just this once. Even mom and dad would have one, all five of them with matching band aids down their arms and sticky lips from sugar and glee.

Come on. You know the family I’m talking about.

Or maybe you don’t, but I do. As much as I spent most of my life denying it, I’m Appalachian, and god but doesn’t that smart sometimes. I’m from hickdom, the place that gets made fun of. The sticks, the boonies, the forgotten corner. The place that is stuck in generational poverty not solely because it gets no funding, but heaven knows that doesn’t help, now does it? And yeah, I live in a college town that does its best to pretend goat-farming is normal behavior, but it’s Appalachia alright.

Appalachia is in my blood as surely as C8.

And C8 is in my blood. See, I used to go swimming in the Ohio, south of the DuPont plant, in the mid-90’s while they were desperately pumping chemicals into those same waters just a couple miles upstream of where my friend and I played. I swallowed that river water, bathed in it, laughed my way through its muddy shallows.

C8 takes decades upon decades to break down inside the human body. Appalachia, you and I are together forever.

It’s a love-hate relationship, and I’ll admit some days it’s more hate than love, but there’s love all the same. There’s love in my despair for this region ever changing, in my frustration with both its drawling natives and dippy academics. There’s a certain pride in being able to understand a deep West Virginia accent when kids who grew up an hour down the road can’t, or in parsing the weird-ass grammar I grew up with. I don’t have the accent—but I’d be lying if I said I’ve never put effort into that.

Perhaps that’s why I chose to write my first book in a little town in Southeast Ohio. Not a real town, no, one I made up. It’s called Buchell, pronounced like it’s spelled, a rarity around here. That’s the only thing strange about it, though, because I based Buchell on experience, on life. Its residents are, well, they’re people. Appalachian people, and I’ve known them too, in bits and pieces scattered from Tuppers Plains to Nelsonville and Hockingport and back again.

Really, I don’t know what I was thinking when I started this novel, because I seem to have all the hillbilly stereotypes represented, from the woman who won’t fight back anymore to the man who rabidly won’t accept that boys, in fact, do cry. The young man making all the wrong decisions, the girl who will never get out, the illiterate boy with the desperately mangled grammar who’s bright despite his failings—they’re all here, familiar and worn.

And yet, I can retrace my steps to find what was going through my head because these stereotypes are not their usual selves. Our beaten woman has never been in love. No one takes the harbinger of manliness seriously. The poor decision-maker shows a wavering Catholic upbringing; our girl whom we fear for is not trying to escape. And the illiterate kid? Dyslexic. Only no one seems to realize, or notice, or care, because it’s easier and cheaper to call him stupid, and he resents it, oh doesn’t he just.

Lazy, that’s what he is, just lazy. It’s the parents I feel sorry for.

Appalachia is not anonymous, and more often than not it doesn’t wear bibs anymore. It washes its clothes until they turn gray, or sometimes orange if the water main breaks again. The city has no money to fix it, or anything else. Its residents bend their backs to work in a mine, or a plant, or a depot, just trying to get by, because the alternative is being one of those god-forsaken people in the trailers, and we may not have much, but at least we have that, and good food on the table. Good, solid food, and a bed to sleep in, and don’t a body need more. We can get by just fine.

The foothills and mountains breed a certain kind of stubbornness, and like C8, I seem to have ingested it at some point. Instead of giving up on my weird-ass book through its ups and downs, I kept writing and editing, chugging away at a genre I didn’t even know existed. I’ll tell you now, we Appalachians don’t know when to give up.

Perhaps that’s something I underestimate in myself: how Appalachian I am. I might resent it and ignore it and occasionally outright deny it when the conversation gets obnoxious, but I am what I am, and we write what we know, and at the end of the day, both the website article and I did the same thing. We reached through the fog of stereotypes and propaganda and slander to find the human faces below.

Human. So human. All swimming in the river until it doesn’t matter how much we wring out our hair, that water is what we grew in, a part of us as certainly as a chemical that should never have been there. We can’t change that, but we can strive to be the best we can, whatever soil we sprout in.

And we do strive. We will always, always strive.

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