My Story, Part 1: Birthday Reflections, Growing up Poor in Appalachia, and Academia

Community Store, Martha, KY
Old community store in Martha that I used to visit as a child. RC Cola & bologna sandwich with onion on it were a rare treat.

Today was my birthday. As always, I spent it in reflection. Another year has passed, so I ponder: Where have I come from? And, where am I going? In this post, I share a bit about the former.

My childhood was mostly gripped by economic despair. It was spent deep in an isolated part of Appalachia. My pre-teen youth was split between a two-room dirt-floor cabin and an old mobile home with boarded windows—in both instances, I did not possess the luxuries of electricity or indoor plumbing.

When my father wasn’t working in the coal mines, driving a coal truck, logging, or checking the Blaine/Martha oil wells for Ashland Oil (now abandoned due to radium 226 contamination), he was plowing the tobacco fields with a mule (we had no tractors). I recall being made to skip school during my 6th grade year to work all day in the fields with him—education was not a priority. College was especially considered to be the devil’s playground or a place to corrupt an otherwise pure Christian mind. In fact, before my father died, I tried to explain to him that I was planning to earn a PhD. His response, “what is a PhD?”

No trips were made to the grocery store. There were no Walmarts, Krogers, Publixes, Food Lions, Winn-Dixies, etc. “Whole Foods” were retrieved from our garden, by wringing the neck of a hen after she had outlived her egg-laying usefulness, by killing one hog each year, or by slaughtering a cow (not often). There was that occasional trip to Ralph Ferguson’s country store to get a few needs on credit, but we (i.e., the Appalachian people) were mostly a self-sufficient and self-sustaining tribal community ripe with our own unique form of backwoods-mountain religion.

During my teenage years, I moved to Michigan with my mother. At first, poverty was steadfast, as we lived in a poverty-stricken neighborhood on government assistance just north of Detroit. However, things gradually improved as my mother attended a community college and found a job microfilming for a local archive company. This allowed for us to purchase our first car—a blue 1980 Dodge Aspen.

Initially, in Michigan, I was nothing more than a poor-speaking hillbilly immigrant to the US (Appalachia had a distinct culture, and moving to modernized MI was a shock). This hillbilly status came with its own ethnic stereotypes and slurs, which caused me great trouble in the big-city high school. I had come from a three-room schoolhouse, which was heated by coal—a place where use of bad language brought about a spanking with a wood paddle.

Eventually, my troubles led me to the streets of Bay City and Saginaw (Michigan), where I slept on a park bench countless nights until my aunt and uncle brought me to Tennessee. Later, I would return to Michigan and even attend a Christian school, then move back to Tennessee, before eventually finding my way into the Army in order to get off the streets (I will share this story in a later post).

What does all this have to do with anything? Truth is, I escaped overwhelming odds to achieve an education. Why have I pushed so hard toward academia these past ten years? I suspect that it has a lot to do with my own childhood and overcoming its shortcomings. Nevertheless, I came from little or nothing, and have somehow been blessed with the means of improving my life. I am blessed. God has been faithful.

Read part 2 of this story



2 Comments on "My Story, Part 1: Birthday Reflections, Growing up Poor in Appalachia, and Academia"

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *