I’ve sprinkled little vignettes of my background all over this site, many of “Famous Common People I Have Known” series are drawn from my life among the trees.
My fondest memories are of trees and things associated with trees. (see below).
But at 47, an educated world traveler, with experiences on four continents, I thought I had risen above my lowly roots until I ran smack dab into Cincinnati, which, Mark Twain paused to note, if the world was going to come to an end he wanted to be there, for “it would take an extra two weeks for them to get the news,”
For background, my mother’s sister married a department store manager in Hamilton, Ohio, which was known as “Little Appalachia” during World War II. It was considered Cincinnati’s basement, or maybe out-house, a place where Appalachians went to sleep, and to eat and drink, after their first shift ended. My mother, pregnant with my sister, lived there with her sister, who had married a department store manager, while my dad served 3 years overseas in Europe. We often visited them.
But it was not until I moved to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River to practice law while trying to build up an international consultancy in Cincinnati in 1990, that I got a full view of what River City people felt about hillbillies. It seems Appalachians, not blacks, occupied the lowest rung of their social ladder…and being white, you could even talk about them out loud in polite society.
Of course, this didn’t include me. I’d read all sorts of books, traveled the world, a successful Army trial lawyer in the Far East toward the end of the Vietnam War. I’d hob-knobbed with generals in history books, then onto a law practice in Arizona, and finally to a Fortune 500 manufacturing company in Kentucky. All spanning 15-plus years.
In Cincinnati, I was able to land an assignment to serve as their representative in a small-business development project in Ukraine… Kharkiv, near the Russian border. (It’s been in the news lately.) Four months. Ukraine was still in the USSR then; in fact, I got to watch the Hammer & Sickle be taken down, and everywhere, “Svoboda Ukraina” was on everyone’s lips. Powerful moments.
When I returned home I was invited to give a short talk about that historic time at a swank business dinner-conference at a downtown hotel in Cincinnati. It was an impressive list of speakers. A little nervous, but also a little full of myself, I had forgotten the simplest rule for hillbillies when traveling in “business company”. I’d always called it the “Far Rule”…meaning a word I should never use…for you see, “far” has two distinctly different meanings in Harlan County; as in “far”, a great distance, “far away”…and “far” as in “truck”. I negligently mentioned a volunteer fire company in Kharkiv, caught myself, then looked up to see ladies stretched out in the chairs, trying to fan themselves, while some men rushed to the cloak-room to retrieve their revolvers…
…for you see, one of “us” had sneaked into their midsts.
It was the last time I ever gave a public address anywhere American English was the language de jure.
But it was also a little bit of a reality check, as well, for I realized, 14 years before Donald Trump caused all our names to be changed to “deplorables”, that the title wasn’t such a bad thing. That first 4-month visit to the Communist world, I was the guest of the political and business class, where “far” was never noticed. But when I returned to the region a couple of years later, after “that speech”, I knew the places I was most useful was not where fluent- Aristotle was spoken. It sufficed only to have read some of the Great Works of the philosophers and historians, then be able to translate into the common tongue.
Good fortune smiled, for a business college in Cincinnati, offering Associate Degrees to mostly 20-something black mothers who suddenly had to give up their AFDC and find jobs because Newt Gingrich Congress had forced it. There, throughout the 90s, while traveling back and forth to the Balkans on various assignments, I taught class after class of black mothers who had to have a “core curricula” credit like American Government in order to get their degree in some professional discipline, most programming. Just to keep them interested, and awake, and to keep them from disrupting the class, I threw away the text book, and gave them 3-hour sessions on the blessings of liberty, and how that was pertinent to that new life they were getting ready to start, and the lives of those little 2-years olds across the hall in the nursery….in three hour segments.
I have to say, I outdid myself. I even had a couple of parolees sign up to see what I was all about, one of them taking my Business Law course, and opening a used-car lot.
I was a star, with not one snigger about my misuse of the word “far”.
In 2008 I began to write and have told stories as I once taught in the classroom ever since.
Still, I’m just a boy of the trees.
“Con los pobres de la tierra”
Or, as the English duke said to a serf during the Wat Tyler Rebellion in 1381:
“A villein (serf) you were, and a villein you always will be.”