It’s Mountain Williams if you’re being formal…

I know I’ve once again come late to the party, but I just finished reading Hilllbilly Elegy over the weekend. I know in in the relatively short time from publication to the release of its movie version, it’s gone from media darling to being trashed for the author’s politics. It’s hardly the first time a “problematic” book has ended up on my shelves and it surely won’t be the last to find a home there.

Avoiding any political discussion of the author or anything else, I clearly heard echoes of truth in the text – echoes from a childhood back home and back when, down in the valleys of Maryland’s coal country.

Though I grew up in Squirrel Neck Hollow – or up squirrel neck if you’re local – I don’t have a particular strong affinity for hillbilly culture as Vance describes it. I might not have been raised in it, but the first half of my life was strongly flavored by it.

I mercifully missed out on the drug abuse and abject poverty – though both were in abundance no more than a stone’s throw away back in the 80s. The stories of batshit crazy relatives, of shouting matches, knockdown drag out fights over small piques of honor, of the extended family living way too close and being way too involved in everyone else’s lives stirred more than a few long slumbering memories.

It’s hard not to reflect on how my own life has spooled out as he mused about alternative opportunities of success for those who went away – who joined the military, followed career paths out of the mountains and hollows, went away to college, or through circumstances found themselves further afield.

I’m not sure I buy into all of J.D. Vance’s theories, but credit where it’s due, because he painted a picture of a world that I might not have entirely lived in, but that I walked through often enough to recognize authenticity when I see it.  

Thoughts on the death of a pipeline…

I was raised in coal country. My childhood memories are punctuated with the sound of a CSX locomotive and open coal cars rumbling through the center of town. I don’t have to tax my memory to recall its whistle screaming as the engine pulled its load across the level crossing at Union Street. Those trains were as much a part of town as any of the buildings that stood overlooking the tracks. Still, they haven’t run coal south through Midland in a long time. Then again, a lot of those old buildings are gone now, too. 

My home town’s entire reason for being was to support the men who went down the mines in the 19th and 20th centuries. I grew up riding bikes in the shadow of draglines and immense tailings piles carted out of the deep mines a hundred years before I was born. Even those “coal banks,” pressed hard against the backs of the town’s two churches, are long gone following a spate of reclamation and restoration efforts made a decade or two ago. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that, for good or bad, we’re living in the closing era of the coal industry. Government – and the people – are going to demand “clean” energy options going forward.

You can rage against it all you want.  There’s no silk weaving mill in Coney anymore because it didn’t make economic sense in 1957. There’s no Kelly-Springfield plant in Cumberland because it didn’t make economic sense in 1987. There’s no Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore because it didn’t make economic sense in 2012. Maybe you see where I’m going with this line of thought.

Sure, hang on grimly to your plant or pipeline. Get out of it whatever you can in the time it has left. The oil is still going to flow – by rail or truck or one of the hundred other pipelines crisscrossing the continent. A few mines may hang on for decades yet, but the battle is over. Coal from western Maryland will never again fuel the ships of the Great White Fleet. Oil, over the next few decades, is going to be phased out. The future is ugly ass wind turbines marring every mountaintop and offshore vista and acres of solar panels where there use to be open fields.

The economy has always been built on creative destruction. It sucks when you’re on the “destruction” side of the equation. Ask the men who built wagons what happened after Henry made the car affordable to the masses. I take no pleasure in acknowledging this, because the end of this type of industry is going to have real and lasting negative impacts on my old home town and the people I know there. Pretending it’s not going to happen, or that we can somehow reverse the inexorable march towards the future isn’t going to help them, though. 

Times change. Technology evolves. King Canute couldn’t order the tide to go out and we’ll fare no better trying to resuscitate dead and dying industries and ordering the future to be an exacting continuation of the past. 

That’ll be an unpopular opinion where I’m from, but as a lifelong holder of unpopular or controversial opinions, I’m ok with that. 

Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.

Gone secesh…

I hesitate to say the idea of Western Maryland seceding from the rest of the state has started to gain traction, but it has recently garnered some interest from at least one of the local Baltimore newscasts. I’m a contrarian by nature and generally tend to come reverse2down on the side of rebels, troublemakers, and malcontents, but on the issue of a free and independent Western Maryland, I’m not sure the concept is fully baked.

The idea of a small, less obtrusive government sounds delightful (and in line with my own general beliefs about the just and proper role of the state), but there are issues no one is discussing. They’re the issues of how such a new state would raise revenue and on what its economy would be based. Maryland writ large has tax money flowing from the defense industry and federal government, the Port of Baltimore, financial services, and yes, agriculture, aquaculture, and a host of other large and small businesses. I have to ask what are the equivalent economic drivers to make Western Maryland viable as an independent state? Tourism, agriculture, and scenic beauty aren’t going to get the job done by themselves. Ask Allegany County how well the “tourism gambit” has worked out for them over the last 30 years.

The state has an obligation to provide a host of public services – police, education, infrastructure, protection of natural resources, to name a handful. Until those who seek to cleave off the western five counties of the state present a clear plan for how they will govern rather than simply offer the complaint that “Annapolis doesn’t listen to us,” I can’t even consider the idea, let alone endorse it.

But despite my misgivings about this plan, it comes down to this: Even when the fortunes of work and responsibilities led me far afield, I’ve always considered myself a Marylander, a loyal son of the Old Line State. I’ve risen and slept my entire life under the quartered banner of Calvert and Crossland. I’ve been duly awed by the majesty of the old Wye Oak and rightly impressed by the tenacity of the St. Mary’s settlers who carved their colony out of Maryland’s primeval wilderness on the lower shores of the Chesapeake. Anyone who wants to throw that legacy over the side will need to make an awfully compelling argument for why 382 years of history should be turned on its ear.

To my brethren in Western Maryland, all I can say is we hear your cry on the Eastern Shore. They hear it in southern Maryland too. Annapolis no more listens to us than it does to you… but I can’t quite bring myself around to thinking the best we can do is slice off the three corners of the state and leave them to their own devices. Would it not better serve us all to unite the three rural sections of this state against the middle rather than continuing to let the middle play us off one against the other?

As for me, I’d rather go down fighting under the cross bottony than have the colors of any other state, old or new, raised above my head.


I haven’t lived in Western Maryland since the summer I graduated from college… Almost eight years ago now. For the first time in those eight years when it was time to leave, I found myself searching for a reason to stay. I don’t know exactly how to describe it, really. Intellectually, I know there is no practical reason for me to live there. I certainly can’t work and since no work means no money, that’s an obvious non-starter. Yet somehow, the home of my youth calls me. I know it was just a passing fancy, but still, something that caught me by surprise simply because it was so unusual.

Hometown boy makes good (or possibly evil)…

It’s not the post I had planned for this evening, but it always seems best to strike while the iron is hot. I’d like to thank the Cumberland Times News for picking up my press release and giving this hometown boy a little bit of publicity today. I’m not quite sure if I’ve “made good” or not, but if nothing else I like to think I’ve “made interesting.” It’s been my experience thus far in life that interesting trumps good on most occasions.

CTN Article - May 17, 2013If you’re looking at the print edition, the article is right there in three short columns on page 2C below the fold. I’ll take all the help I can get and I appreciate them helping me get out the word.

Apparently I’m a slice of life… Who knew?

Voyeuristic tendencies…

As a kid in Western Maryland, I was no stranger to a heavy duty snowfall. In the winter of 1996 I seem to vaguely remember a storm dropped around three feet of the stuff that closed schools for a week and let me drive my 4-wheeler all over town for shits and grins. What I don’t remember is any television station shifting to wall-to-wall coverage of frozen precipitation falling from the skies for the duration of the storm. Which leads me to wonder, in my most curmudgeonly way, is that a new thing that they’re doing? We barely had CNN back then when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And honestly, I think widely available cable television had only been ‘down the Crick’ for less than a decade. Maybe they did cover it and I was too busy playing in the snow to notice it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we just didn’t make such a big deal out of it.

It’s snowing. We know more or less when it’s going to end. When it does, there will be plows and shoveling and life will get back to some semblance of normal in about 24 hours. I’m not sure what else you really need to know when you can look out your window and be at least as well informed as the local weather guy. I guess I’m just missing the part where it’s really a national Big Deal. Unless it’s about driving up ratings by appealing to America’s insatiable voyeuristic tendencies. In that case, I understand completely.

Summer nights…

I’ve said it before and it’s still true… Sometimes all you need to do is get a nose full of a particular smell to have a train load of memories smack you in the back of the head. In all my travels I’ve never found anyplace that has the exact scent of the back yard of the house where I grew up. It sets in around early evening and will be even stronger later when the dew settles on everything. It’s a mixture of deep woods and damp earth, pine and something I can’t quite identify but know entirely by heart. As far as I can tell, it’s a smell that only happens on this spot. For all I know it’s a smell that only happens for me.

I’m settling in for a night of tales from the old days with one of my closest buddies. There’s a fair chance that more than one frosty cool beverage will be involved. Summer days were made for nights like this. Cheers!