Mountains of Coal.
The Meaning of The Eastern Kentucky Coal Fields in A Town You Never Heard Of.
I grew up in the in a little town called Leatherwood Kentucky. There are two places in Kentucky called Leatherwood. My Leatherwood sit in Perry County Kentucky. Nestled around thirty miles from the county seat of Hazard Kentucky. In the other four directions you can go to Hyden, Whitesburg, Cumberland or most famous of all Harlan Kentucky. Leatherwood was a booming coal town at one time. The coal mines are still there, but they do not pump out the coal that they used to. The coal camp has long been closed down, and what remains of the coal camp is in shambles.
Leatherwood when I was younger was a great place to live. Peaceful, beautiful and surrounded by enough nature to to explore for several lifetimes. We were poor in terms of money and worldly possessions, but it was something that did not bother me much as a young child.
If I were to give you what my hometown meant to me from the prespective of the child who did not understand the poverty she lived in, and the darkness that was hidden around her it would make the area seem ideal. Leatherwood from the presepctive of my six year old eyes would be bigger than life, full of beauty. Hazard the county seat would be the biggest buildings in the entire world and the Black Gold Festival each year to celebrate the coal mining industry. My six-year old mentaility would tell you about the trips down dirt roads, and how we would go to the grocery store and everyone knew our name. The six-year old me would tell you about how how we would go for rides with my parents with a cooler of food to different areas and enjoy the beauty of nature.
The six-year meaning of my hometown would be truthful, but it hides the real meaning behind the place I grew up in, called home, and eventually left. What Leatherwood means to me. has changed so vastly since my childhood, one would think I am speaking of an entirely different place.
Leatherwood, Kentucky, my hometown has means several things to me. The first meaning it has to me is soul crushing poverty. I was seven the first time I understood that we lived in poverty. This is when my presepctive of what was around me started to change. I had gotten what I saw my mom pay for food with at the store, and put one of her "funny coupon dollars" in my pocket to take to school. I thought I could use it for the soda machine sicne it bought soda at the grocery store. I was very wrong. That little "funny coupon dollar" was a food coupon known as food stamps, and was meant to be used at the store for groceries. I did not know snack machines did not count. I was beyond ashamed when I got in trouble for trying to put that paper food stamp in the soda machine. I have memories of coal miners and their wives sneering as my parents paid with food stamps. My dad was disabled and couldn't work any more. It did not seem to matter to them. I did not understand but their looks of distain I recall even now. It was heartbreaking for a seven-year-old child. I remember going with my mom to what we called a wide-spot by the road. A big white truck was there. They would hand boxes of food from the truck. Peanut butter, cheese, powdered eggs, powdered milk, canned meats like beef and pork among other things. My mom would trade one of her cans of peanut butter for cheese since I loved the cheese. I know now that these we part of the commodities program. The cheese I loved was detested by a great deal many people, and called Government cheese. This is the first meaning of my hometown to me depressing poverty for my family.
The second meaning of my hometown to me would be sheer un-deniable grit from many of the people who live there. Depite the poverty and other issues that plauge Leatherwood and many of the surround areas the people who live there have grit. They will do what they have to so they can survive even if it means crawling into the belly of a mine to dig coal to do so. This grit comes with several downfalls for many however. Their grit is out-maneuvered by lack of opportunities and a fading coal industry. Lack of education and undiagnosed learning and mental disablities make it so that many would struggle to find jobs outside of the coal mines when they are fully gone. The grit makes them fight for a fading industry while the lack of education for many makes them fail to to fight for new industry to be brought into the area to replace the high-paying coal mining jobs. Their grit has given a jaded ideaology on those who get disability. It is not uncommon to hear somone who coal mines say "I work my ass off, while somebody sits drawing a check and doing drugs" If they aren't old the general assumption by many is that they are drug addict or utterly mentally incompent. I endured this generalization for many years. Insulted and de-based because I was disabled by those around me. Leatherwood means grit but it also means cruelty and humiliation to me as well.
Leatherwood's third meaning is sexism. "Men work the mines" Women stay home, or work as school teachers, and in the medical profession. There are female doctors, and even judges and lawyers but women do not go into the mines, nor do they log. The prevailing idea is that the mines are "Men's work" and the same holds true for any logging jobs. It is rare to see a female coal miner in the area. I only ever knew of one, and she was treated poorly for doing so. She was looked at as taking a job from a man who needed it. Leatherwood means being shunned for working in the mines if you aren't a man.
Leatherwood of course means coal. It has been the life blood of the area of generations. There aren't many alive that do not recall a time that coal was not dug in the area. The ones that do are fading away quickly. Coal is what puts food on the table for many. My grandfather was a coal miner. My dad's work at a construction worker, and certified blaster was fueled by coal revenue. The very water I drank my entire life was obtained after digging through a 40 coal seam on my property. I still have family who mine coal. A family member that I consider as a brother is a coal miner, and has been for over 20 years, and he is only 38. My little brother was a coal miner. My dad's brother in West Virgina mined coal, some of his nephews do as well. My mom had six brothers, all children of a coal miner. One attempted to mine coal, and he would break out so bad he couldn't. My grandfather had wishes that none of his sons or children would ever be able to mine coal. Thankfully his wish was granted. Leatherwood is coal but coal being dug has a dark meaning for Leatherwood.
Leatherwood means Black Lung and Death to me as well. My grandfather worked the mines, and his lungs paid the price. The coal dust created black lung, and death hung around the door just waiting to see when his time would come. Eventually it came. A coughing fit so bad that he massive heart attack and died at home came. Coal and black lung was to blame, and death was just there waiting to take the pain away.
Leatherwood means drugs and destruction to me more and more with each passing day. I know so many people who have become addicts, or are recovering addicts. I know plenty who have overdosed. Their drugs of choice are narcotic pain and nerve pills, meth and heroin. Recovering addicts get addicted to the drugs like Methadone and Suboxone that they are presecribed to prevent them from going though withdrawls. It is a never ending cycle of heartache in the area. Mothers either are weaping for their children or they are the victims of addiction themselves. Homes are broken everyday because of the horrors addiction brings to the area. My family members remain in the area, and some are recovering addicts, and others are still suffering from addiction. I escaped it this. I have never done drugs, I drank a lot in my younger days. I was on the verge of alcoholism and stopped. Many others have not been so lucky. Leatherwood means pain, and suffering, heartache and despiar to me. Leatherwood is broken home, hearts and promoises, but it was once good.
Leatherwood, Kentucky is still a part of me. It can be heard in when I speak. It has a piece of my soul. Leatherwood still has some of the meaning for me that it did for the un-jaded little six-year old me. It still has all the memories of my parents. Every trip we went on, the years I spent taking care of my dad after his stroke. The smiles and laughs he would have as we watch his favorite cartoons together. Leatherwood still has the memories of us going berrypicking, and laying out a garden on a massive plot of land my parents rented with my Aunt Barb and worked every year as long as they could. Leatherwood still holds the memories of days spent on the front porch with my mom, uncle and his girlfreind as they talked and I listened to music. Leatherwood means a hike on a trail that is part of the great Appalachian Mountains to go dig roots such as ginseng, blood root, and yellow root. Leatherwood means listening to bluegrass play though the speakers of the old 8-track player I had built into a floor model record player. Leatherwood means the memories of me singing Precious Memories to my mom because she loved how I sang it to her. Leatherwood also means the heartache of laying both my parents to rest in her coal filled grounds, and hoping their bones turn to dust and not coal as time goes on. Leatherwood means so many things to me despite the fact that I have long been gone. Leatherwood Kentucky will always be my hometown, sorrows, happiness and all.