The roads were steep and slow with many switchbacks, the hollows were deep and dark. Before we left on our trek, Mary’s mother said “take some beer with you, you’ll need it”. She obviously was not happy about what has become of the home town of Mary’s youth. Elbert, West Virginia was long and skinny because it had to be. It was nestled in a hollow between two mountains and mine number 7. The town, that consisted of houses on either side of one central road, also had to squeeze in the railroad tracks that hauled the coal out. Next to the lot where Mary’s childhood house once stood was the small central park with a lone tennis court. She had spent much time playing on that court, challenging any takers, boys or girls, becoming the star of the town. She went on to excel in sports, and in life, ever since. The house burnt down, the tennis court now has weeds growing through the cracks, the net is missing. This brings up an odd question. Most all of the other houses are still there and they seem to be occupied, some of the mines are still open. Why isn’t anyone playing tennis anymore? It would be so easy. Pull a few weeds, put up a net. In many ways, the place looks much the same, but it just seems to be lacking the human vibrancy that it once had. Of course one could say the obvious answer is that there is underemployment, but consider that the actual amount of possessions that the current residents can afford is probably similar to that of 40 and 50 years ago. The world as a whole has gotten richer. I feel that it is the hope and the attitude of people that makes a large part of the difference. Attitude being defined as their relative placement in society. Hope being defined in terms of hope of future success. In the days that my wife lived there, when she was a child, coal mining was considered a good career. Families were being raised with relatively high expectations. The people had pride and self respect. Now, with a lack of a feeling of security and the lack of a sense that this place is going to work out well for them, the vibrancy has migrated elsewhere. This is a common trait of most every place that was once booming, but now is not. The answer? Mary’s family answered it by placing a high value on education and moving on; three sisters who all earned Master’s degrees and beyond.
There is never one easy answer. We should be wary of people who promise one. I feel that part of the answer is to help and encourage people, not geographic locations.
Thank you for this thoughtful piece on where we Yurkovich girls grew up. I think you’re correct in your speculations.