About Me

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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

My Top Films of the Decade: Part II

And here we go with Part II....

2004 – Sideways

This is a great “buddy” movie set in California’s gorgeous Napa Valley. I saw the film with one of my oldest friends and it hit home for both of us because there were so many incidents in the film which resembled our experiences over the years. My friend felt that he was Miles and I was Jack. Although, other friends of mine tell me that I have a little in common with both the main characters (Miles is also a writer). There is a serious thematic underdone to this story combined with a lot of great humor. The wine flows and the jazz soundtrack really compliments the characters and the story (not everyone liked the musical score, my friend DePalma sneeringly refers to the jazz soundtrack as “that f&%#ing Pink Panther music”). One of the stronger messages in the film deals with how our lives turn out differently than we expect. Nothing in life ever goes according to plan and we can never accurately predict how our plans will develop. In the case of this story, Miles had been saving a special wine for his tenth wedding anniversary. Instead of sharing the wine with his wife, he is divorced, and drinks the wine alone out of a Styrofoam cup at a burger joint. Anyone who has had their expectations in life dashed can relate.

If you are under the age of twenty-five you probably will not “get it” when you watch Sideways. When I was eighteen I read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and I thought, “This is it? Really?” You see, I didn’t “get it.” I understood the story on an intellectual level, but not an emotional one because I simply did not have enough life experience. I returned to The Old Man and the Sea ten years later and now I think it is absolute brilliance. The story had not changed ... I had. I’m glad I was old enough to appreciate Sideways when it was released.

2003 – Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

This is an extremely underappreciated film. I went to see it in the theatre thinking I was about to watch an action flick. I was dead wrong. It is so much more. First, the story is a vivid portrait of what life on a naval vessel in the early 1800s would have been like – the griminess, the close quarters, the class divisions, the call of duty, the superstitions, and the subculture of a ship at sea. Second, it demonstrates how advances in sea navigation made exploration and discovery possible in the early modern era. I really enjoyed how a portion the tale mimicked Darwin’s first trip to the Galapagos.

But the heart of Master and Commander is built around a lasting friendship and a passion for music. Even though Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin have decidedly different ideals and their personalities clash, it is their mutual love of music that truly binds them together. While watching the scenes when Jack and Stephen play songs together I couldn’t help but think of all the jam sessions I’ve had with good friends in the past. There is a special bond that musicians share with one another. An unspoken conversation takes place. If you do not play, then you cannot possibly comprehend. Music represents a spark of Divinity in all of us. If you are lucky enough to have the gift of music within you, don’t ever let it go.

The use of Vivaldi and Bach in the film is really wonderful as well. I’ve attached a link to one of my favorite songs used in the film, Corelli’s, “Adagio from Concerto Grosso.” Check it out. If you don’t find it moving, then you must not have a pulse.


2002 – Road to Perdition

“Natural Law: Sons are put on this earth to trouble their fathers.”

This is an extraordinary movie. I think I’ve watched it about a dozen times and if I were to make a list of my top twenty-five films of all time, Road to Perdition would be on it. This is a father/son story combined with a revenge tale. One thing holds true with nearly all revenge tales: if you seek vengeance, it may be granted, but the price you pay is your own life. This tale is no different. I’m not certain, but I believe the revenge motif began with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. To be or not to be. If you seek revenge, apparently that is the question. The combination of acting, visuals, and music when Mike Sullivan (Tom Hanks) takes out John Rooney (Paul Newman) is perfection. This is also a film with strong moral message and the ending is stunningly powerful.

2001 – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

I admit it. I am a Lord of the Rings geek. It was very tempting to put each of these three films in my list, but I decided to go with only one. I own the extended version of this film. A friend wanted to borrow it but I would not let him because it is mine. My own. My precious. When I first read the books over ten years ago, I thought that it would be impossible for anyone to ever make a film that would do the story justice. Peter Jackson proved me wrong. Although the film trilogy still does not compare to Tolkien’s masterpiece, they accomplished much more than I ever thought possible. This is partly due to the fact that they use most of Tolkien’s own dialogue in the script, the cinematography of New Zealand is stunning, and the musical score is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps I’ll write a more detailed blog on Tolkien’s work some other time. This tiny commentary will have to do for now. Even though the high fantasy aspect of the film is not for everyone, The Lord of the Rings is indisputably one of the best trilogies in motion picture history.

2000 – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

What can be more wonderful than watching a Homeric Epic set in the American South during the Great Depression? Whatever it is, it must have R-U-N-N- O-F-T. I love the idea of taking classical myth and putting it in a modern setting so much that I did the same with my first novel, To Live Again. Aside from the mythological references, there are so many great quotes from this film. I’m a Dapper Dan man… This place is a geographical oddity, two weeks from everywhere… I’m the paterfamilias… So long boys, see you in the funny papers… You made a deal with the devil and these boys just got saved, I’m the only one at present unaffiliated… We thought you was a toad.

Once again, the music helps move the story. One also has to love the scene with the sirens and John Goodman as the Bible-selling Cyclops. But despite the music and the clever, quirky humor, my favorite part is after the TVA flood. Clooney’s character, Everitt, states that they are entering an age of reason right before seeing the blind man’s prophecy (a cow on the roof of a shack) come true.

This is one of my two favorite Coen Brothers’ films. This other, of course, is The Big Lebowski. The Dude abides. The Dude abides.

Honorable Mention

The Two Towers/Return of the King – See the above explanation for details.

Gladiator – Russell Crowe, Ridley Scott, and Rome. You can’t go wrong with this one. Gladiator is another story that follows the revenge motif mentioned above.

Black Hawk Down – Another Ridley Scott film. I remember the anger and frustration I felt when this actually happened in 1993. This is the best combat film of the decade.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy – “I’m kind of a big deal. People know me. I have many leather bound books. My apartment smells of rich mahogany.” This movie is made with bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – A complex tale about the purpose of memory in our lives. This is Jim Carrey’s finest work.

The Dark Knight – The confrontation between the Joker and Batman in the prison is one of the most iconic film scenes of the decade.

Iron Man/The Incredible Hulk – When I was a little kid I read comic books all the time. I love the fact that Marvel is trying to recreate the Marvel Universe with these new films and I can’t wait to see how they take Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America, and the Avengers, and tie them all together. If they can pull it off, it will be fantastic.

Open Range - I am a sucker for good westerns and I think this is the best one of the decade. This is Kevin Costner's most solid work in a long time. Of course, it doesn't hurt when you have Robert Duvall as your costar.

Team America: World Police - From the twisted, clever minds of the creators of South Park. You just have to see this movie to believe it.

Until next time. Cheers and Happy New Year.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Top Films of the Decade: Part I

Right now the internet is riddled with everyone’s top ten films of the decade. So, being bored while sitting around between semesters, I decided to throw my own hat in the ring. Instead of giving a one through ten list, I’ve decided to pick a favorite film from each of the last ten years. I’ll start with this year and go back to 2000. Here it goes….

2009 – Inglourious Basterds

This movie is, without a doubt, Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction. Even though it is an “alternative history” it maintains a feel of historical authenticity. Tarantino did his homework with this one. The references to Karl May (a turn of the century German novelist who became famous for writing stories about the American frontier – Hitler was a huge fan and even recommended that his soldiers read the books) and to Weimar film culture in the 1920s demonstrate that Tarantino knows his subject well. Even though the average film buff will not catch all of the references, for someone like me, it makes the story all the more enjoyable. There is also a really interesting interpretation on the symbollic meaning of King Kong to be found in the drinking game scene.

As with nearly all fiction, characters make the story. The “Jew Hunter” is one of the most manipulative and creepy villains I’ve seen on the screen in years. You have the young theatre owner (Shosanna) on a quest for revenge. Ironically, she gets her chance for vengeance because the “German Sergeant York” (Fredrick Zoller) falls in love with her. The undercover British lieutenant who is an expert on the German film industry is wonderful, but all too brief in the story. Brad Pitt’s character (Lt. Aldo Raine) is great. The fact that he’s a gun toting redneck from Appalachia makes it even better. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Brad and two of the other Basterds try to sneak into the premier for Nation’s Pride posing as Italians (being typical Americans they are the only characters in the movie who can only speak one language). Listening to Pitt trying to speak Italian with a hillbilly accent is hilarious.

In some ways, the film feels like World War II meets the western genre. The opening sequence looks and feels like it happens on the American frontier, even though it takes place in Nazi occupied France. The music adds to the “western” flavor. The Basterds are, of course, portrayed as American, gun-slinging cowboys. You even have the saloon gunfight (in this case in a basement, much to the chagrin of Lt. Aldo Raine). In the end, however, this movie is Tarantino’s revisionist Nuremburg Trial. Tarantino shows the Nazis no mercy. In fact, one of the main characters dies as a result of showing sympathy for a German soldier. But Tarantino never gets in a hurry in this tale, allowing the rich dialogue to move the action and fully develop every character. Even though the film is two and a half hours long, I wanted to see more of each character. Personally, I think everyone could use a little more Hugo Stiglitz.

2008 – Gran Torino

No one has been more influential in shaping the perception of masculinity in American pop culture in the second half of the twentieth century than John Wayne and Clint Eastwood (the first half of the century belonged to Hemingway). Even though it is a new century, Eastwood still has what it takes. In many ways Gran Torino is to Eastwood what The Shootist was to Wayne. In both films, the main characters are dying of cancer, both of them befriend and become a mentor to a younger man, both of them stick with old fashioned values in a society that views them as relics, and both Eastwood and Wayne refuse to go quietly, going out in a blaze of glory. Eastwood’s commentary on race, ethnicity, and the changing face of America is both funny and enlightening. One of my favorite scenes is when Eastwood takes Thao to the barber shop to teach him how “men talk” to one another. It really reminds me of the way some of my friends and I spoke to one another in the office at WVU. The film is touching without being overly sentimental and smart without being preachy.

2007 – There Will Be Blood

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better fable on film about the self-consuming power of ambitious greed. This is how the industrialists made their cash. Daniel Day Lewis gives a performance that is every bit as iconic as George C. Scott’s Patton. The score is really good as well, provided by Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist from Radiohead. This is not a film for those of you who like sentimental, happy fluff. It is not even a piece of entertainment. It is a deep resonating, artistic piece. Even though the story strays far from Upton Sinclair’s novel, I think he would be pleased with the result. The final showdown between the Capitalist Baron and the False Prophet is chilling.

2006 – The Departed

The more I see this film, the more I like it. This story is a tragedy, pure and simple. Usually, I can tell you nearly everything that will happen in a film within the first five minutes, but The Departed contained twists that even I did not see coming. The cast is superb. DiCaprio, as Billy Costigan, gives his finest performance. Costigan is one of my favourite film characters in a long time. You can't help but feel sympathy for him and I absolutely hated to see him get killed. On the other hand, I loved watching the slimy, rat Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon's character) getting axed. That is what a great story does. You want certain characters to be happy and you want others to get what they deserve. A perfect example is Madolyn. I wanted her to be with Costigan (even though it could have never worked in the long term) and get as far away from Sullivan as possible. I really loved the scene where Costigan hooks up with Madolyn while Van Morrison is singing his cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” in the background. Great scene. Baldwin, Sheen, and Walberg round out a very solid cast and Jack is, of course, still money. It ranks in my top five mafia/crime films of all time.

2005 –Kingdom of Heaven (Director’s Cut)

Talk of religion often makes people squirm, but this film does so in a very smart way. If you watch this film, get the Director’s Cut and only the Director’s Cut. Some people may complain about the running time of the extended version, but to those folks I say, “It’s called an attention span. Get one.” A number of academics have gotten their panties in a bunch over the numerous historical inaccuracies in the film, but as it so often happens with overly anal scholars, they get bogged down on details and miss the overall point. Ridley Scott was trying to give us a discussion of contemporary religious issues and conflicts in a medieval setting. In that, he succeeds while simultaneously telling a really gritty and engaging story. While the message of religious and multicultural toleration juxtaposed with the true meaning of spirituality pervades the film there is also an element of Divine Providence found in the tale of Godfrey’s son, Balian. He is a man who believes that God has abandoned him, only to be guided to greatness. There are also poignant moments that reflect on the advantages of class mobility over a stagnant caste society. Interestingly, Godfrey refers to the Holy Land as the "New World" where a man can become whatever it is within himself to be as opposed to Europe where a person's station in life is based entirely on birthright. I liked all of the characters, both Muslim and Christian, both heroes and villains. And one can’t help but love Edward Norton’s portrayal of the leper King. The audience never sees his face, but the performance is wonderful. There is also some very powerful symbolic imagery when Muslim and Christian armies face one another outside the stronghold of Reynald de Chatillon. The story also does a good job in demonstrating the importance of leadership in making peace and starting war. Kingdom of Heaven is a good example of how fiction can entertain and still tackle important social issues. This how I believe stories should be told.

That is all for Part I. The next part will cover 2004 back to 2000. Cheers.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

It's Not Where You Are, It's Who You Are With

Reflections on Charlotte

The last month of the decade began with a road trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. An old college roommate, Swami (all my friends refer to him as Swami for reasons that will not be explained in this blog) moved to Charlotte a little over a decade ago and he has been harassing me to come and visit him ever since. Last September he married his second wife, whom I had not yet met. Since I missed the wedding (his fault, not mine – he changed the date at the last minute) and since I had defended my doctoral dissertation the week before, it seemed appropriate to head south, do a bit of celebrating, and reconnect with an old friend.

Although I drive by the city twice a year, I have not actually spent any time exploring Charlotte in over a decade. Serving as home base for a number of large American corporations such as Lowe’s, Goodrich, Bank of America, and Time Warner Cable, it comes as no surprise that the city has grown immensely over the previous ten years. The traffic is evil. I was delayed getting into the city because of a wreck on I-77 South and had the great misfortune of slamming into town right at rush hour on a Friday evening. I’ve driven through several major cities during rush hour and Charlotte is definitely a frantic hodgepodge of jumbled cars and trucks rivaling any place I have ever been. As I made my way to the southern end of town towards Swami’s home, I was amazed at how everything from the city to the South Carolina border has become a major suburban sprawl. The entire area is a confusing maze of housing developments and shopping centers. If you do not know your way around (and I didn’t) it is easy to get lost.

Over the next two days, Swami and I spent a lot of time reminiscing about our undergrad days while making a few new memories. I love to explore and so, we went exploring all around the city. Downtown is filled with good restaurants and tons of nightclubs and pubs. The streets are pretty clean and the architecture is modern. Unlike other southern cities such as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, where the rich history pervades everything from the sweet tea you sip to the stones on the sidewalks to the lazy drawl on a southern belle’s voice, Charlotte flows with youthful energy and everything feels new – even if it isn’t. Nothing exemplifies the feeling of modernism and energy more than the Calvary Church. This massive, gleaming, imposing structure, while not exactly extolling a message of Christian humility, certainly stands as powerful symbol of Protestant Christianity’s strong influence on the culture of the American South. It looks like a castle of mirrors. Swami pointed out that Dale Earnhardt’s funeral was held at the church. Fitting, I thought. I have always maintained that the Holy Trinity of the South is Jesus, Robert E. Lee, and Dale Earnhardt … and not necessarily in that order.

But the real texture of a place is found in its culture, which has a distinctive richness from the rest of the south; at least from the places I have been. People greeted me with typical southern friendliness wherever I went and it is impossible not to notice that the cultural differences between southern and northern women in the east is profound. While much of the south spends a lot of time looking at the past (being a historian, I fully understand), Charlotte appears to be looking to the future. For Charlotte, the future looks more metropolitan and multicultural than ever before. The Latino presence has arrived in full force. Nowhere is this more evident than in Swami’s own home where his new wife hails from the South American country of Columbia. Her name is Monica and she is one of the most adorable and instantly likeable ladies I have met in a long time. Swami is crazy for her and he should be. The man has taken his lumps over the years with some bad luck in love and it does me immeasurable good to see an old friend finally end up as happy as he deserves to be. It even gives a cranky and cynical academic like myself a tiny glimmer of hope.

Both Swami and Monica are migrants. Swami is among the many people who have reluctantly left the mountains of Appalachia looking for a better job and a better life elsewhere while Monica left the mountains of Columbia for many of the same reasons. Happiness is not determined by where you are but rather, who you are with. Sometimes people move away from the homes of their youth because they can’t wait to escape a small town, or run from a poor family life, or whatever. Others move because they simply do not have enough opportunity in the place of their youth. Whatever the reason, the culture that we come from is carried within us and is transplanted wherever we go. Monica could not stay in Columbia and have the same economic opportunities as in Charlotte, but she brings a little bit of home with her. It is found in her accent, her cooking, her clothes, and her worldview (as an aside, I teased her all weekend because I came to her home with great expectations over the exotic Columbian coffee I was certain she would serve only to find that all she had was Maxwell House).

One of the ways Monica shared her culture with me was to take Swami and I to her favorite Columbian restaurant, Los Paisas (visit their website at http://www.lospaisasrestaurant.com/). When we arrived in the parking lot and exited the car, I could immediately hear the lively Columbian music bursting from speakers by the front of the restaurant. Two lovely Latinas were outside dancing to the music and holding fruity drinks in their hands. Even though the sky was grey, they were determined to make their own sunshine. Inside, I experienced one of the most pleasurable meals I’ve enjoyed in a while. Their empanadas, fried plantains, and pork crackling were wonderful. The green sauces had me sweating with joy. But the real treasure of the meal (and the weekend as a whole) was the company. An old friend, a new friend, and transplanted regional and international culture all wrapped up in the modern metropolitan south. The Charlotte of the early 21st Century feels like one of the more interesting cities in the south and it is so because of the people, not necessarily the place. Thanks for a great weekend guys. I look forward to many more. Adios y Feliz Navidad!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Soldiers and Stereotypes

For those of you who might be interested, my doctoral dissertation is now available to download for free online. You can find it at:


Once you follow the link, just click the pdf file on the left of the screen.

Below is a short summary of the study. I plan to transform the dissertation into a book that will expand my themes. Until then... enjoy this version. Cheers. 

Soldiers and Stereotypes: Mountaineers, Cultural Identity, and World War II

To what extent are Appalachian stereotypes true and how much is pure fabrication? This study seeks to answer this question by examining the experiences of West Virginia soldiers during World War II. Appalachian hillbillies, believed to be culturally backward, uncivilized, isolated, and prone to violence, were often sent straight to the infantry because it was believed that their wild mountain heritage made them inherently better fighters. Using interviews, letters, and a collection of over 1,200 firsthand written accounts of Appalachian veterans collected by West Virginia University in 1946, this study traces the evolution of the cultural and individual identities of mountaineers throughout their time in the United States military. These West Virginia narratives are also compared and contrasted with those of other soldiers in the United States and around the world. Because every single ethnicity and race in the world fought and was exposed to many similar circumstances, the war itself is the ultimate litmus test for the validity of cultural stereotypes. If stereotypes associated with Appalachians are true, then their wartime narratives will reflect different reactions to soldiering and war based on their own inherent cultural traits. If not, then their reactions to war will be similar to those of other soldiers from different regions and nations. This study endeavors to demonstrate what the Second World War reveals about the changing identity of West Virginia soldiers, and more specifically, the culture and stereotypes associated with them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is Twilight just Dracula meets Pretty in Pink?

“So what’s your take on Twilight?”

I’ve been asked the question about a dozen times over the last couple of weeks. Everywhere I look I see film posters, television spots, and weary-eyed men who are being mercilessly dragged into cinemas either because they really love their girl or they are irrevocably whipped. My oldest friend whom I’ve known all my life (I’ll refer to him as Dr. Tack) was lucky. His wife opted to go with her sister and have a “girls night out.” This allowed Dr. Tack to focus on sophisticated, important, manly issues…. namely, playing Halo 3 with me until two in the morning. The good doctor was spared but fortune did not smile upon everyone. Last Friday I ran into my cousin and we talked for a short spell. He asked me what I was getting into over the weekend and I told him. When I asked what he would be up to I noticed a glazed, undead look in his eyes. “Gotta go see that New Moon. I thought I was going to get out of it, but my wife found a babysitter. She told me she wouldn’t give me any grief for hunting all next week if I take her. So I gotta go.” He then shook his head and solemnly walked away beneath a grey, overcast sky. Or as Professor Van Helsing said, “It is a strange world, a sad world, a world full of miseries and woes and troubles.”

So what’s the deal with the Twilight series? I see all these girls in my classes pouring through these books like they hold the key to life. I can’t help but think: of all the books in the world to choose from, why these? When I was an undergrad I read Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gordimer – many of the classic authors if, for no other reason than to find out why they were called classics in the first place. So, why skip a wealth of literary greatness to read a series that a friend of mine referred to as Dracula meets Pretty in Pink?

I have to admit; I have neither read the books nor seen the films. Usually when a student of mine tells me that I “just HAVE TO read these books” I give a smirk and roll my eyes. Teen vampire love story just doesn’t seem to float my boat. Of course, I've heard a lot about the story and I’ve seen the trailers for the films. A number of reviewers have also made the 80s teen flick/ Twilight connection. But an important point is that almost all romantic stories are formulaic and this series is no different. There are several formulas. For instance, you have the “Love Triangle Formula.” Titanic is the most obvious example. In this formula, a young girl (Kate Winslet) must choose between two men. One man (the guy she is in a relationship with at the beginning of the story aka Billy Zane) is usually rich, upper class, and everyone thinks they are the perfect couple – but he really isn’t right for her. Then there is the lower class guy. This guy is usually an artist (like Leo) or musician or some kind of rough backwoods character. The lower class guy (Leo) opens up new worlds to the girl (Kate) and she eventually leaves upper class guy for the lower class guy because that’s exactly how it works in the real world. The “Love Triangle Formula” gives a lesson that material things don’t matter and true love can break through all boundaries (class, cultural, racial, etc…).

Then there is the classic “Cinderella Formula.” The film Pretty Woman is nothing more than Cinderella as a hooker. She’s lower class, gets a makeover by a prince (Richard Gere in this case), they fall for each other but she runs away because they come from two different worlds and it could never logically work, and he chases after her and tells her that her station in life doesn’t matter to him and he loves her for who she is as a person…. and she’s Julia Roberts. This formula has all the romantic elements women love. The formula fulfills the fantasy of dressing up in elegant gowns and being the prom queen. To some characters in the story, the guy is a cold hearted businessman but she sees his tender side and gets him to open up. Finally, the formula wraps up by fulfilling the fantasy of a man chasing after his woman and publicly confessing his love for her. By the way, I believe you can tell a lot about a woman by which formula story she likes the best, but that’s another blog for another time.

The Twilight series, on the other hand, appears to fall into the “Girl Must Choose between the Bad Boy and the Nice Guy Formula” category. Not to be confused with the "Love Triangle Formula," the "Bad Boy and Nice Guy Formula" has a different twist. By just viewing the film trailers, the basic story reveals itself pretty easily. The girl has an unstable family life, she’s probably a misfit or at least not very popular at school. The vampire is the bad boy and, in New Moon, a werewolf comes along and listens to all of her problems. He’s a nice guy, this werewolf. But her true passion is for the vampire bad boy. A key element of this formula is that the woman tames (or tries to tame) the bad boy (Grease/Beauty and the Beast). In this particular case, the bad boy wants to suck the girl’s blood. They probably don’t have sex because he might “lose control” and be overcome by his savage nature and kill her. He won’t hurt her though, because he loves her too much. He probably even runs away and tells her that it’s for the best. Of course, the fact that they can’t have sex makes it even more romantic for a lot of women. Ladies see this plot device as romantic drama, men see it as a tragedy (quick question: can vampires get blue balls? If anyone knows, email me). I’ve not figured out exactly what the werewolf wants, other than to walk around without his shirt on and show his tender side. As I watched the trailers on YouTube, I found myself wondering if the author is metaphorically stating that all men are either vampires or werewolves. And, if so, which one am I? I guess it doesn’t really matter much. As long as ladies aren’t comparing me to Frankenstein’s Monster or Igor I’ll be fine. This formula (or series) can end in two different ways. In the case of Grease the girl ends up with the bad boy. In Casablanca, (and I am in no way saying that Twilight is on the same level as Casablanca, just a similar formula) Ingrid Bergman makes the responsible choice and sticks with nice guy over Bogey (but they’ll always have Paris).

The critics have been pretty harsh on the Twilight films and a lot of academics cringe at the thought of Twilight’s popularity. As an academic myself, I can see their point. Earlier today I stopped in at a local bookstore and read the first few chapters of New Moon. The writing quality isn’t exactly on par with Marquez, the dialogue seems to be taken from direct quotes of top forty pop songs, and the prose is filled with cliché after cliché. Reading along, I was about to pull my hair out in frustration over the fact that such a poorly written story could be so popular when suddenly I thought of something that made me see Twilight in a different light. The other night, while flipping through the channels (I watch much more television now that I’ve moved away from Morgantown) I ran across an old classic, The Goonies. Great! I thought, I hadn’t seen Goonies in over a decade! This was one of my favorite films as a kid. By the time I found the movie on TV, the kids were already underground and had made it farther than Chester Copperpot… and he was a pro! Chunk was in the hands of the Fratellis and the race for One Eyed Willy’s gold was on. What I’m going to do now is paraphrase the scene that was playing when I turned the station.

The kids run into the bottom of a wishing well. At first they think they’ve found the gold, but quickly realize they’re grabbing handfuls of pennies and nickels. Andy (the Token Hot Popular Girl) holds up a penny and wistfully says, “You know, I’ve always believed that when you threw your penny into the well and made a wish, that wish came true.” The kids continue to rake up the coins as Stephanie (The Token Hot Popular Girl’s Cynical and Less Popular Friend) tells everyone to put the coins back where they found them. “You can’t take these coins” She yells. “These are somebody else’s wishes. Someone else’s dreams!” The kids feel guilty and drop the coins, except for Mouth, who sticks a penny in Stephanie’s face and says, “I’m keeping this one. This one right here. Because it was my wish, my dream, and it didn’t come true!” Then he swims away in the well water.

The dialogue couldn’t be cheesier, the acting is horrific, the plot is filled with clichés, everything about the story is ridiculous ….. and I loved every minute of it. Goonies isn't high art or literary drama, but I remember watching the above cheezy scene when I was twelve and, at that time, I was hanging on every word. I was desparate for the kids to find the pirate treasure so that they wouldn't get kicked out of the Goon Docks. I’m sure a lot of people feel the same way about Twilight. In that sense, I get it. Twilight is formulaic romantic fiction with vampires and werewolves thrown in. Maybe it is nothing more than Pretty in Pink meets Dracula, but it fulfills a romance fantasy for a lot of women and it’s a lot of fun. Nothing wrong with that. And since filmmakers are going with eighties films and horror themes, they might as well make a horror version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Now that I would go see. Wait a minute, they kind of already did that, it’s called Teen Wolf.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pass the Amontillado, I’m Waiting for the Great Pumpkin

October may very well be my favorite month of the year. Granted, I may be a bit biased since I was born on this month, but there are so many other reasons to love it. The mountains transform into rolling red, gold, and orange quilts. Leaves flutter in the air as cars breeze down solitary roads. The days are comfortable and the nights are crisp. Hunters invade the woods and cheerfully blast at everything not wearing orange. Football is in high gear. This year has been an interesting one for a Steelers and Mountaineers fan. The Steelers, coming off their Super Bowl victory have stumbled their way to a 5-2 start. They don’t look like champs, but somehow they are still in the mix. For the Mountaineers, it’s Coach Stew Year Two. Everyone talks about what a nice guy he is and the Mounties are a tolerable 6-2 but I foresee tough times ahead. Does Stew actually know what he is doing? Half the time he’s pacing back and forth on the sidelines with a confused look and grimacing teeth like he really needs to use the bathroom but can’t remember where to find the nearest toilet. And don’t even talk to me about the halftime interviews. Sometimes the rambling, smiling Stew even makes less sense than Lou Holtz dishing out those those incoherent pep talks – and before Stew did it, I thought it couldn’t be done. Meanwhile thousands of prayers go up from the mountains each day imploring God to make Rich Rodriguez fail at Michigan. Stew is still enjoying the fruits of Rodriguez’s recruiting. Unfortunately for Stew and the Mountaineer faithful, the talent well will not be as deep in the near future. But no matter what happens, it is October and each year I hate to see it go.

One of the best things about October is Halloween. Kids get candy, men get to act like kids, and ladies get to dress like tramps. Everybody is happy. For me though, this time of year is great for ghost stories and scary movies. Upon my return to the ranks of the blog world, I have decided to share a few of my favorite things to watch and/or read whenever I get the chance in late October. The first is a sentimental childhood cartoon: “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.” The second is my favorite Edgar Allan Poe story, “The Cask of Amontillado,” and the third is, in my opinion, the best vampire movie of the past thirty years, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I will discuss them one blog at a time. For now, it’s Charlie Brown’s turn.

As far as I’m concerned, if you don’t like the Great Pumpkin you must be a terrorist. I had not seen it in a few years but was lucky enough to catch it on TV last week. Having seen the cartoons my nieces and nephews watch I’m struck by how different and much more artistic cartoons used to be. The Charlie Brown special would probably not even see the light of day if it had just been introduced to television executives. It is not happy enough, they would say. It isn’t politically correct and sweet and filled with delusional positive messages about how everyone is special and things always turn out okay in the end. But that is what makes the Great Pumpkin so interesting and enduring. It isn’t a “feel good” story. In fact, the show is filled with disappointment. As usual, Charlie Brown takes it on the chin. Lucy still pulls away the football at the last moment, sending Charlie crashing into the leaves. When they go trick or treating, all the other kids get candy; Charlie Brown gets a bag of rocks. Sally doesn’t get any candy either. Because of her puppy love for Linus, she stays with him in the Pumpkin Patch and misses out on all the candy. She finally screams and shouts at Linus before storming off into the dark. She is like so many women who have blind faith in the men that they love only to wake up one morning and realize they’ve wasted a big chunk of their lives. Then there is poor, ideological Linus - ever watchful in the Pumpkin patch. As the night grew darker, he slept alone under his blanket until his sister drags him home and puts him to bed. No Great Pumpkin. How many of us have spent far too much time in our lives faithfully waiting for something that never came? I certainly have. Most tragically, of course, is that Snoopy fails in his dogfight with the Red Baron and is forced to make a crash landing somewhere in the French countryside (By the way, in the scene where Schroeder is playing the piano and Snoopy is dancing while dressed in his World War I flying gear, Schroeder is playing actual songs popular among the soldiers in the First World War – could you ever find as much depth in a cartoon today?)

Our story ends with Charlie and Linus leaning against the brick wall trying to make sense of everything that has transpired. Charlie didn’t get any candy and Linus never saw the Great Pumpkin. Linus is undaunted, however, and vows to find an even better Pumpkin patch next year. “You’ll see!” he shouts to Charlie Brown. He declares that one day he’ll be proven right. Isn't life this way? Most of the time we don’t get what we want. We wait around for things that never happen; we expect candy and instead, life gives us a rock. But like Linus we wait for next year and hope for better things. Maybe one day Charlie Brown can kick that football and maybe one day the Great Pumpkin will show up. In the meantime, we can enjoy the fact that kids can still see and learn from a cartoon that was drawn over a generation ago. Maybe we can still learn from it too. If that doesn’t make the Great Pumpkin a work of art, I don’t know what does.

Until next time...

Friday, September 4, 2009

An Old Poem

This is one of my very first publications – a poem I wrote way back in the early fall of 1999. It recalls an old black and white portrait of a couple (family ancestors, I was told) at my grandparents’ house. The portrait hanged in an isolated room upstairs and it was so old that the couple in the picture looked like ghosts. Some of the grandkids were so freaked out by it that they were too scared to enter the room. Even though it frightened me as a little kid, I still couldn’t keep myself from going in and taking a peak. So I wrote a poem about it and decided to post it here on its tenth anniversary. . . .

The Dead Man on the Wall

The dead man on the wall
and his wife stare at me.
In a little room upstairs
in my grandmother’s house
They wait for me behind a closed door
with possum’s eyes
and call to me from up the stairs.
I always go.
Sitting in the room,
wood creaks and my toy red truck
rolls across the floor.
My back itches and the possum’s eyes
crawl up to rest on my shoulder
I always look back,
and behold their decaying cage
of wood and print
Then comes the grin.
How does it form?
Down the steps again.

                                                                                 September 1999

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Rednecks Can Teach us About the War on Terror

The following is the first in a series of articles I will write on the lessons of 9/11.To read a more thorough treatment of the ideas in this essay, check out chapter two of my book, Defending the Homeland

What Rednecks Can Teach us
About the War on Terror
The people of our own state . . . are threatened by a greater
danger than the hateful German power threatened in 1918.
The enemy not only dares to shed the blood of peaceful
citizens, but he would shatter our government . . . The lives
of our peaceful citizens are precious enough, but there is a
thing more precious, and the enemy would destroy it. That
more precious thing is our free government.

The above passage is filled with familiar themes. Stable government is threatened, innocent civilians are dying, and the enemy is out to destroy freedom. Anyone familiar with the U.S. Government’s rhetoric in the days after September 11, 2001 has heard these themes when applied to the terrorist threat posed by Al-Qa’ida. However, the above quote, taken from the Charleston Daily Mail, is in no way connected with the Global War on Terror. Instead, the editorial is referring to the coal miners’ uprising of 1921 in West Virginia. If one is to take the coverage of the uprising at face value, the miners hated freedom every bit as much as Osama bin Laden. Unfortunately, it never occurred to public officials and journalists alike that the coal miners of 1921 were not fighting against freedom but, rather, for it.

It has been said that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. While such a statement is fraught with the potential perils of overgeneralization, there is an element of truth involved. When thousands of coal miners marched from Charleston to the slopes of Blair Mountain in the largest labor uprising in U.S. history, they fought against state police and mine guard armies because they had endured brutal treatment for decades and they felt that they had no choice but to fight for their rights as American citizens. The other side did not see it the same way. Politicians, journalists, and the captains of industry did not see the West Virginia Mine Wars as a struggle for working men’s rights. In their minds, it was a fight against basic American beliefs and values. Because the miners wore red bandanas they were dubbed rednecks. But what was a redneck? To the miners, a redneck was a union man and someone willing to fight for his fellow miners - wearing the red bandana was a badge of honor. To the rest of society a redneck meant something else altogether. For the mainstream culture, anyone who fought against state troopers and took over state property must simply be irrational, or possibly misled by radical leadership, or perhaps they were so culturally backward and uneducated that they were too quick to resort to unreasonable acts of violence. These were the popular reasons that were given to explain the West Virginia Mine Wars. As a result, the term redneck became associated with simple minded, backward, uneducated people. Do such adjectives sound familiar? They should.

How many times have suicide bombers been called insane, or misled by fundamentalist leaders, or brainwashed and uneducated? How many times have Middle Eastern terrorists been called uncivilized? Former President Bush has called terrorists a “threat to civilization.” Interestingly, my great-grandfather, when put on trial after the Mine Wars, was called the very same thing by state prosecutors. This is not to argue that the coal miners of West Virginia have a lot in common with the members of Al-Qa’ida. The circumstances, people, and levels of violence were different. What I find eerily similar are the ways in which both groups were perceived and the way in which the US government has reacted to both groups. In 1921, everyone wanted to put a stop to the miners' revolt. In 2001, everyone wanted to put a stop to Al-Qa’ida. In both cases very few people stopped to ask why. In other words, if we do not take serious steps to understand what leads radical groups to violence, and merely react to the violence in kind, then we only treat the symptoms of terrorism and not the disease itself. To put it another way, the average 1921 American citizen in New York or Boston could not possibly conceive why anyone would take up guns and form their own army in West Virginia. But some people who lived among the miners understood. One preacher who ministered to the miners in Boone County said that it was time to “lay down his Bible and take up his gun.” Likewise, when a group of journalists interviewed over 100 locals who grew up in the same area as Hasib Hussein, a suicide bomber, they were shocked to find that “Nearly all of them said they would never go to the same extremes as the bombers, but said they understood what might have motivated them.” The average American can’t imagine why someone would want to be a suicide bomber. But the people who live near them say that they understand. Why is there such a huge gap in understanding?

Tragically, Americans seem content to fall back on stereotypes and generalizations when it comes to what motivates a terrorist. Perhaps it takes too much effort to find the truth, or perhaps the truth is a little too uncomfortable for people to face. In 1921, stereotypes and simple explanations overshadowed the truth. The end result was that the miners lost their union, their jobs, remained under the same oppressive system, and were branded with a mythologized stigma that remains to the present day. What will be the end result of the current conflict? In a stroke of immense irony, the Bush Administration sought to deal with what he called, "the threat to civilization" by invading the very place where civilization began. Like the Mine Wars, this conflict may also have just a little something to do with fossil fuels and the people who work to extract them from the ground. We need to know more about the lives of workers in the Middle Eastern oil fields. At any rate, how will the Obama Administration differ in its approach over the next few years? I don’t know, but unless we know the specific reasons behind why the terrorists are so violent, then we will never really know how we can be safe.


Charleston Daily Mail, September 1, 1921

Michael Hirsh, “Where’s the Clarity?” http://www.newsweek.com/id/45728/page/1.

“What Motivates Suicide Bombers?” http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/Story?id=959855&page=1.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Redneck Rosies

An article in the Saturday Gazette-Mail on West Virginia women in World War II prompted me to post this paper that I presented in Baltimore at the Southern Women's History Conference a couple of years ago.

Redneck Rosies:
Gender and Consumerism in Rural Appalachia
During World War II


C. Belmont Keeney

Geraldine Lowe was a twenty year old married woman with a two year old daughter when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. After the military drafted her husband, Geraldine went into the workforce for the first time in her life at an Ordinance Plant in South Charleston, West Virginia where she helped produce six inch gun barrels for the war effort. She worked an eight hour shift, from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, while her parents watched her child. Geraldine recalled, “It was hard work. It was filthy, dirty work. It was hot work . . . The machines would get so hot you had to put water on them and the water would splash all over you. Hot shavings came off of them when we were working too, and they would get into your hair and you had to hurry and get them out. You know, it was hard work.” Remembering her wartime experience, Geraldine said, “I was just like Rosie the Riveter, I guess.”[1]

But not exactly. Historians such as Studs Terkel and Michael C. C. Adams have demonstrated that many women recalled the war as a great positive, lending to the popular reference to the Second World War as the “Good War.”[2] Adams has gone as far as to say that many Americans “have filtered their recollections over the years, forgetting the strain and pain – just as when remembering a vacation, we forget the rainy days and bad motels.”[3] Certainly there is some truth to these statements. Many men and women of the World War II era do look at the war as if it was a positive good in their lives, particularly when it came to the economic boom brought on by the war. World War II ended the Great Depression in America and is seen by many historians as a watershed moment for women in our nation’s history. Six million new women entered the workforce between 1942 and 1945. Unlike previous decades, nearly 75% of these women were married. Additionally, many women either earned their own money for the first time or, for the first time, found a steady paycheck outside traditionally women-oriented careers.[4] According to many historians, the new professional opportunities, alongside an new or better income, helped usher in an era of growing financial and social independence for women, making them more prominent as consumers in the national economy. In the words of one woman on the home front, “We made the fabulous sum of thirty two dollars a week. To us it was just an absolute miracle. Before that we made nothing.”[5]

This feeling of euphoria was not unanimous among women. Geraldine Lowe’s experiences and recollections, along with many other West Virginia women, do not neatly fit into these aforementioned ideas. Oral histories, letters, and other historical evidence reveals that many Appalachian women saw the war as a great negative and not a positive influence on their lives. “It was a bad time, a sad time for everyone,” She recalled.[6] In addition to dealing with the stress of her husband and brothers risking their lives overseas, Geraldine still had to care for her child, write letters, participate in war bond drives, was pressured to volunteer for the Red Cross, and stand in line for hours each week to buy rationed goods. Instead of becoming an affluent consumer, Geraldine found herself consumed by the events around her. By the end of each day, she said, women were “totally, absolutely exhausted.”[7] In Geraldine’s view, there was no such thing as the “Good War.” This war, for a number of West Virginia women , dealt more with death and sacrifice than with new social and economic opportunities.

Geraldine’s experiences reveal that the income made possible by new jobs in war industries did not necessarily translate into extensive financial freedom for many West Virginia women. With mandatory government rationing, the pressure to buy war bonds, and the lingering shadow of the Great Depression in West Virginia, many of these Appalachian women, these Redneck Rosies, barely kept their head above water. This study will demonstrate that, for West Virginia women, World War II was a double-edged sword, simultaneously opening up new financial and consumer opportunities for women while also preventing them from taking full advantage of these opportunities.

It is true that the Second World War changed the role of women in the economy considerably. Not only did millions of new women enter into the work force, they did so in predominately male-dominated industries. In places such as the automobile industry, for example, women worked as welders and on assembly lines to produce for victory.[8] While a number of Appalachian women left their homes to travel to Detroit, Akron, Cincinnati, or Hartford to take part in these industries, they also found opportunities within the state. Union Carbide, the most prominent of the chemical producers in southern West Virginia began to hire women to run control tests in laboratories.[9] The Westinghouse Lamp Division in Charleston began hiring women in large numbers to work on assembly lines.[10] Women began working for the state police as radio operators and even entered into the lumber industry during the war.[11] Even in smaller West Virginia cities, the numbers of women in the workplace boomed. In Point Pleasant, a small town along the Ohio River, the number of women working more than quadrupled to nearly 3,400.[12]

These new jobs gave many Appalachian women an income never before experienced. Jeanne Louden, from Fairmont, WV, worked in metallurgy during the war and earned twenty five dollars a month. In a letter to her daughter, Alice Louden told her daughter with satisfaction, “You could live on $25 a month and eat well.”[13] Predictably most of these women fondly recall the pride of their first paycheck. Alice Rissler of Charles Town, WV received her first thirteen dollar paycheck during the war.[14] Karen Owens from Grant Town, WV earned twenty two dollars with her first check and Selma Row of Fairmont made twenty dollars her initial week on the job.[15] These jobs provided financial hope to women that they may be able to feed their families, buy goods for themselves, and pay off loans. Mary McGinnis euphorically declared, “I felt like I was on top of the world. My own money.”[16] Karen Owens said, “I think that many of the women was glad to be in the workforce because there was such a lifestyle that the women had so, had so many restraints. It kinda lessened their restraints because then they had money and they didn’t have to ask their husband or spouse or whatever . . . it gave them more freedom.”[17] Or in the more practical words of another woman, “I wish this war would go on long enough for us to get our house paid for.”[18]

But the possibilities were just that; possibilities. Certainly new employment for women did fuel a large boost of consumerism. The liquid assets of the average American tripled between 1942 and 1944, from about $50 billion nationwide to around $140 billion.[19] The vast majority of West Virginia women, particularly those married and with children, found that instead of gaining an “independent consumerism,” with which they could buy the goods personally desirable to them, they were hampered by both harsh economic realities of a lingering depression and by an overwhelming “wartime consumerism,” with which women were expected and sometimes required to spend money in such a way to further the war effort. This wartime consumerism stunted the development of any independent consumerism in two general ways – government rationing and the War Bond Drives.

President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Production Board (WPB) in January 1942. Within a month the Office of Price Administration (OPA), under the jurisdiction of the WPB, was authorized to ration consumer goods to enhance the war production effort. Over the course of 1942, the OPA launched four types of rationing that would change the everyday life of the American consumer: Certificate Rationing, Differential Coupon Rationing, Uniform Coupon Rationing, and Point Rationing. These four types of rationing placed consumer limitations on items spanning from gasoline, shoes, tires, sugar, coffee, meat cheese, cigarettes, nylon, and canned goods.[20] Citizens registered for stamps at local schools and within weeks found themselves waiting in long lines for reduced stocks of goods and hopping from one long line to another in order to find any meat, butter, or sugar for their families.[21]

West Virginia women, as with many women across the country, now earned a steady income, but could not spend their money on goods they may want to purchase. Mothers who had the funds to feed their children better, in contrast to the Depression years, dealt with a lack of available foods. Foods that were available often had inflated prices, despite the passage of the Emergency Price Control Act in January 1942.[22] The price of buying apples and bananas rose to such a degree that Alice Louden could only afford to pack her kids’ lunches with celery and carrots. In Fairmont, oranges became more expensive than a steak. But even though families could afford steak, they often could not find it available in stores and thus, many West Virginia homes relied on eating venison, rabbit, and squirrels more so than meat at the grocery stores.[23]

The reduced supply of nylons and cotton also inhibited what women could do with their money. Some women merely experienced the awkward feeling of not being able to buy any nylon hose to wear in public, or the lack of coffee and sugar.[24] Others were forced to walk to work or could not drive their children to participate in school activities because of gasoline rationing.[25] Alice Louden lamented to her daughter, “There isn’t a yard of any kind of white cotton material for dresses anyplace in town, Morgantown, or Clarksburg.”[26] Still others faced harsher realities. Catherine Owens and Jean Spurlock remember that, as teenagers living in Cabell County during the war, their mothers were unable to buy them new dresses because of rationing. To compensate, they made feed sack dresses and wore them to school.[27] Thus, while enjoying a larger abundance of money, the lack of consumer goods meant that West Virginia women had few spending options and commonly had to make do with what they had, just as in the Depression years.

One product in abundance however, was war bonds. The U.S. government used the selling of war bonds as a major resource for financing the war. Government ads, celebrities, magazines, and newspapers all promoted the idea that it was a citizen’s patriotic duty to purchase as many war bonds as possible. Industrialists bought war bonds up to $25000 each and even children saved pennies, nickels, and dimes until they could by a twenty-five dollar bond.[28] Women were inundated with advertisements to use their newly acquired incomes to help pay for the war. One magazine advertisement depicted a woman holding children and staring at a war bond. The caption below read, “War Bonds – the only gift that can hasten the day when HE comes home again.”[29] Volunteers in cities across the state such as Morgantown, Charleston, Wheeling, and Huntington handed out illustrated eight page pamphlets entitled “What Will You Pay for Peace?” instructing women how to save money for the purchase of war bonds.[30] Another war poster displays a mother grasping her frightened young daughter as a German bomber flies overhead. The caption reads, “Before it’s TOO LATE! Buy War Bonds.”[31]

Naturally women in West Virginia and around the country responded enthusiastically to the war bond drives. Some women in Fairmont used as much as a third of their salary to purchase war bonds.[32] Sophie Skrzypek of Wheeling, WV was named the War Bond Sweetheart of her factory for purchasing the most war bonds in her department.[33] Women in West Virginia who worked on farms also contributed to the war effort from their personal incomes by purchasing extra chickens or an extra cow and donating the milk and eggs to the war effort.[34]

While rationing and war bonds depleting much of the income made by West Virginia women, what remained of their income went towards providing basic necessities for their families. Although the Depression still gripped much of the United States until the country entered the war, West Virginia still suffered more than most. State Governor’s Herman Guy Kump (1933-1936) and Homer Adams Holt (1937-1940) held to strict southern conservative democratic values and blocked Roosevelt’s New Deal policies whenever feasible. The result was that much needed relief from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and other New Deal agencies never made it to numerous West Virginia families.[35] By the advent of the war, incomes became more plentiful, but many families in West Virginia found still it difficult to dig themselves out of the economic slump. While families no longer went hungry, they still had no excess income beyond the ability to make ends meet. A number of women simply left West Virginia in search of higher wages. Those who stayed behind did the best they could.[36] Ona Blankenship of Huntington said of her income during the war, “It was for my family, see. So I didn’t buy nothing, really. I had to buy the groceries and such.”[37] Betty Harris of Cabin Creek rode a bus each day to work at a glass plant in Charleston during the war. Although she earned enough to feed herself and her mother, she could not afford to give birth in a hospital and gave birth to her daughter at her home.[38] Peggy Dorsey perhaps summed up the general feeling of women in her state best by saying, “Times were very rough, and I hope I never have to experience it again.”[39]

Indeed, times may well have been very rough for many married women in the Mountain State during the war, but if there was one group who did feel a touch of economic liberation it would have been young, single women who entered the workforce. Although historians have placed much emphasis of the entrance of married women into the general workplace during the war, it seems as though unmarried women benefited the most economically and were able to exercise their own individual consumerism. Selma Row was single during the war and lived at home. She spent her money on clothes and makeup. Other single women followed suit. In fact, nearly every single working woman in West Virginia interviewed said that she spent her first paycheck on a new dress. [40] Karen Owens, despite the pressure from family and friends to spend her spare money on war bonds, would secretly buy new clothes with her money. Her mother forbade her to buy any new clothes but she did so anyway. In order to fool her mother, she would wear an old dress while leaving her house and then put on the new dress after she left. The ruse ended, however, when her mother caught her in Fairmont one night wearing some of her new clothes.[41]

As the war came to a close, the government, businesses, and consumers alike looked to the possibilities of the postwar economy. Because most businesses viewed women’s new role in the workplace as only temporary, advertisements assumed that women’s purchasing interests would coincide with her return to the home and the kitchen. Magazines, newspapers, and radio ads flooded women with ideas of new stoves, refrigerators, and other home appliances.[42] Women were expected to voluntarily give up their jobs, return to their homes, and, instead of dreaming of purchasing new dresses or personal items, to buy objects that will better enable them to become good housewives.[43] A large number of West Virginia women who chose to return from the industrial cities or to remain in their home state left the workforce permanently. Those who chose to stay in the workforce found limited options. In a state dominated by the coal, lumber, and chemical industries, opportunities for women remained scarce. Furthermore, wartime mechanization in these industries led to layoffs and a decrease in the general working population. If a woman wanted to work, she would have to work in jobs traditionally designated for women, such as schoolteachers and secretaries. If she wanted to work in other industries she had to leave the state.[44]

The Second World War gave many women opportunities previously unheard of in American Society. The dramatically improved economic status would eventually lead into the modern women’s rights movements and permanently alter the workforce in the United States. New and better incomes meant new consumer possibilities. Women could now spend money on their own and for themselves. In West Virginia, this individual consumerism was limited to young unmarried women who were not financially burdened with too many of their own bills or children. For the married women and mothers, demands from rationing and their necessary purchase of war bonds resulted in a wartime consumerism that left little room for anything in excess of providing for their homes. Thus, the Redneck Rosies, who left their homes for the workplace were able to play a crucial role in winning the war and providing for their families through their labor and consumerism. The wartime consumerism did not allow for much leisure spending, but it did demonstrate the willingness of women to use their own purchasing power to help win the Second World War while simultaneously helping to pull them out of the Great Depression. For many women around the country, individual consumerism had arrived, but for the women of West Virginia, it would have to wait.


[1] Geraldine Low interview by Matthew Kupeski, 10 April, 2006, South Charleston, WV, tape recording, West Virginia Veteran’s Project, West Virginia University (hereafter cited as WVVP).
[2] See Studs Terkel, “The Good War”: An Oral History of World War II (New York: The New Press, 1984); Michael C.C. Adams, The Best War Ever: America and World War II (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
[3] Adams, 115.
[4] Gail Collins, America’s Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines (New York: Perennial, 1998), 373-382.
[5] Ibid, 382.
[6] Geraldine Lowe interview.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ruth Milkman, Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 1-11.
[9] Charleston Daily Mail, 8 February 1942.
[10] Charleston Gazette, 10 May 1945.
[11] Charleston Daily Mail, 18 April 1942; Charleston Daily Mail, 30 May 1943; Alistair Cooke, The American Home Front, 1941-1942 (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), 29-39.
[12] Charleston Daily Mail, 26 February 1943.
[13] Alice Louden to Jeanne Loudin, 12 August 1944, Louden Family Letters, Courtesy of Greg Loudin, Cheat Lake, West Virginia.
[14] Alice Rissler interview by Chris Binotto, 23 April 2006, Charles Town, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[15] Karen Owens interview by Lauren Kress, 26 April 2006, Waynesburg, PA, tape recording; Slma Madeline Row interview by Lisa Ervin, 20 April 2006, Fairmont WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[16] Mary McGinnis interview by Jamie Killmeyer, 21 April 2006, Morgantown, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Flora Young interview by Eric Dinger, 13 April 2006, Nitro, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[19] Harvard Sitkoff, “The American Home Front,” Barbara McLean Ward, ed., Produce and Conserve, Share and Play Square: The Grocer and the Consumer on the Home-Front Battlefield During World War II (Hanover: The University Press of New England, 1994), 42.
[20] Certificate Rationing handled large items and appliances such as stoves and automobiles. They were distributed on an individual basis of need. Differential Coupon Rationing handled items such as gasoline and were distributed also on the basis of individual needs. Local State Defense Councils determined the individual distribution of these stamps. Uniform Coupon Rationing was uniform across the board and handled items such as shoes, sugar, and coffee. Point Rationing handled foods and these stamps were distributed to every man, woman, and child. See Barbara McLean Ward, “A Fair Share at a Fair Price: Rationing, Resource Management, and Price Controls During World War II,” Produce and Conserve, 79-83.
[21] Ibid., 88-89.
[22] Ibid., 95.
[23] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 5 December 1943 and 18 January 1944.
[24] J.C. Blume Betty Blume, and Evelyn Estep interview by Ashton N. Critchley, 27 April 2006, Fayetteville, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[25] Peggy Dorsey interview by Tim Abraham, November 20, 2004, Mount Hope, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[26] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 12 May 1944, Louden Family Papers.
[27] Catherine Owens and Jean Spurlock interview by Jason Borland, 26 April 2006, tape recording, Huntington, WV, WVVP.
[28] Sitkoff, “The American Home Front,” 44.
[29] Minute Man, Volume 4, Number 19, 15 May 1945, World War II Records, War Loan Drives, West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Library, Morgantown, WV (hereafter cited as WVRHC).
[30] “For Use in the Victory Loan” and “What Will You Pay for Peace?”, World War II Records, War Loan Drives.
[31] William L. Bird Jr., and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998), 90.
[32] Alice Louden to Jeanne Louden, 6 January 1943, Louden Family Papers.
[33] Sophie Skrzypek interview by Dawn Wimmer, 15 March 2004, Wheeling, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[34] The Clarksburg Telegram, 4 January 1942.
[35] Jerry Bruce Thomas, An Appalachian New Deal: West Virginia in the Great Depression (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), 72-84 and 220-231.
[36] Sophie Skrzypek interview, Peggy Dorsey interview, and J.C. Blume, Betty Blume, and Evelyn Estep interview.
[37] Ona Blankenship interview by Katina Hensley, 15 April 2006, Huntington, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[38] Betty Harris interview by Jelyssa Parsons, 13 April 2006, Charleston, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[39] Peggy Dorsey interview.
[40] Among others see Selma Row interview; Jessie Walker interview by Maureen Hess, 22 April 2006, phone interview, tape recording; Patricia Stimple interview by Joseph Martin, 16 April 2006, Aurora, WV, tape recording, WVVP.
[41] Karen Owens interview.
[42] Ward, “A Fair Share at a Fair Price,” Produce and Conserve, 98-100.
[43] Ibid., Morgantown Daily Post, 13 January 1945.
[44] Otis Rice and Stephen Brown, West Virginia: A History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 278-280; see also Betty Harris interview; Selma Row interview; Dorothy Lucas interview, WVVP.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Son of the Struggle

The following article originally appeared in Goldenseal Magazine in the summer of 2006. Since Blizzard passed away a few months ago, I thought I would resurrect the interview in order to share the experiences of a man worth remembering.

Son of the Struggle:

William C. Blizzard Jr. Remembers the Mine Wars


C. Belmont Keeney

Born deep in the coal country around Cabin Creek in 1916, William C. Blizzard Jr., has lived a life every bit as colorful as his family’s legacy. A student of journalism and photography, a World War II veteran, and freelance writer, Blizzard has journeyed a long way from the coalfields of his youth. But the legacy of his birthright casts a long shadow. William’s father was the famed United Mine Workers leader Bill Blizzard, who rose to prominence during the West Virginia Mine Wars and became one of the key figures in the 1921 Armed March on Logan and the subsequent Battle of Blair Mountain. As a boy, William watched as his father and other union leaders such as Frank Keeney and Fred Mooney were tried for murder and treason. He sat next to his father when the jury found him not guilty and observed his father’s continuing leadership role in the UMWA, working alongside men such as Van A. Bittner and T.C. Townsend until he was appointed president of District 17. While his father led the union, Blizzard Jr. carried labor’s banner with his pen and camera, writing for such publications as Labor’s Daily and The Nation. He has recently published a book entitled When Miners March: A History of the West Virginia Coal Miners where he recounts the career of his father and the story of the Mine Wars in West Virginia. Still lively, energetic, and full of wit, Blizzard Jr., met with me in October 2005, a mere two months shy of his eighty-ninth birthday, to reminisce about his life, his father, and how the union cause has marched on through the past century.

Chuck Keeney – Let’s start by talking about your youth. You were born in Eskdale, West Virginia. Did you grow up there?

William Blizzard – I didn’t really grow up in Eskdale. My mother and father lived in one of them coal company houses for a time. When I was about five years old my father was looking for a place to live after his acquittal. He was looking around and found this old house with a tin roof and an outhouse around St. Albans. It was a small house, but a two story one. From there I went to school in St. Albans, West Virginia. I went to high school in Boone, County in a Presbyterian School for the first two years and my last two I went to the high school in St. Albans. We didn’t have much of anything at that small school except what you would call the basics; reading, writing, and arithmetic. So I was delighted when I transferred to St. Albans where they offered Latin and Chemistry, which were classes that I really needed and really wanted.

CK – Where did you attend after high school?

WB – West Virginia University.

CK – Did you graduate from there?

WB – Yes I did. Actually, I had… rather, I wouldn’t say tempestuous, but I was really unhappy with the school. I felt out of place because I was there with wealthy people who were connected with the coal industry on a management level and you know, I was kinda a lone sheep. I just didn’t feel like I was treated very well. I didn’t like it and I almost quit. But I didn’t have any real choice. My parents would’ve wrung my neck if I quit. So I stayed and graduated with a B. A. degree. I also had minors in French and Spanish.

CK – So people treated you differently because of your father?

WB – Yes, well I thought so. At first I didn’t know why it was but as I look back I realize that a reason for the way some people treated me because of my father’s role in labor. My parents realized it, though they didn’t say anything to me. They initially sent me to high school away from St. Albans, where there were kids whose parents were in railroad and coal management and they thought I might be mistreated. So they sent me to that Presbyterian school in Madison.
CK – Was your family Presbyterian?

WB – No, no. My mother told me, “When you get there you tell them that you’re a Republican and a Baptist.” My people, by the way, were Republicans. My father was. It seems like an anomaly but that’s the way he was and he stuck with it the rest of his life except during the FDR years, you know, Franklin Roosevelt. He changed the whole nation. My father and other labor leaders had a favorable government for a change.

CK – You served in World War II. Tell me about your service during the war.

WB – Well, I had already graduated from college and I didn’t want to leave my new wife so I just waited around ‘till I was drafted and I just took what they offered me. I told them I would like to get into some photography if there was an opening and it happened that there was and so I went to a photography school in Denver, Colorado. After that, it wasn’t very much longer after that we were sent overseas to serve in, I guess you could call it an intelligence area. It was an informational gathering thing, using P38 planes, in those days the fastest planes the U.S. had. They took guns out of them and put cameras in instead. The pilots would fly along and they would take photos of enemy territory. Most of my work was in the film processing.

CK – You were in the Pacific theatre. Is that correct?

WB – Sure was. Yeah I was in the South Pacific. We landed in Australia first. I didn’t stay there long at all, though. I was then shipped on to New Guinea. So we set up a laboratory there and a base where the P38s would fly their missions from.

CK – Didn’t you attend Columbia University after the war?

WB – Yeah, after the war I moved to New York City with my wife. I was paid by the government on the GI Bill to go to school and I wanted to anyway. Columbia University was within walking distance of where I lived and they had listed there in their catalog a whole series of professional writing courses and I studied magazine writing, newspaper writing and so forth.

CK – After which you became a freelance writer and worked some for the Charleston Gazette. Is that correct?

WB – Yes, well that is true.

CK – How long did you work for the Gazette?

WB – Let’s see, twelve years. 1959 is I believe when I started. The reason they hired me was because I had multiple skills; I was a photographer and I was a writer. I drove all over West Virginia and interviewed various people and writing about locals and so forth. Anything about West Virginia that I thought would be interesting to West Virginians.

CK – How did you incorporate your military experience in photography with your

WB – It wasn’t really a difficult task Well, actually I worked for magazines a great deal, and newspapers. When they wanted to save money they had me do two jobs instead of one. It got me more jobs but it meant double the work for me. A lot magazines want separate people for each task but many of the times they let me do both. I still have most of my old cameras, in fact. I’ve taken pictures everywhere, the southwestern deserts, even Europe. Sometimes taking pictures can be pretty dangerous. When I covered the Widen Strike[1] it was a pretty volatile atmosphere (laughs), and you were taking serious risks to go into the strike zone and take good pictures. Luckily I never got shot at. But it can be a risk.
I also did some work for Goldenseal. One of the articles, a labor one actually. The Goldenseal editor had contacted a man who had done a great deal of wood carving in the area around the New River. I was hired to take pictures of the carvings he had done.

CK – What kind of carvings were they?

WB – He did carvings of individual people or groups of people. Most of them were representations of workers, going about their tasks. It’s been a long time ago, but I think some of them were coal miners.

CK – Of all the stories you covered, which one stands out the most?

WB – I suppose (reflects a moment).. the one that stands out the most was not for the Gazette, but the one I delighted in the most was a story on the radio astronomy observatory in West Virginia. They were looking for signals from outer space… you know to see if they could contact any intelligent life out there. They got scientists to come down from some of the large cities and universities to live there for a time. I wrote the story for the Marathon Oil Company. They had a magazine that they published and they got me to go down there and write the story on radio astronomy and take the pictures.

CK – Where did you work after the Gazette?

WB – I worked for a labor paper. It was called Labor’s Daily. It was established in Charleston, on the west side. It was intended to be a national periodical for the whole labor movement. I worked there two and a half or three years.

CK – Were you involved with any other labor activism besides Labor’s Daily?

WB – Not specifically labor activism, but I did some articles for The Nation. One of them was on the Widen Strike and the whole labor situation in West Virginia. And one was a biographical sketch of the editor of Labor’s Daily. Ralph White was the editor’s name. I don’t know whether he is still alive or not. He was real happy to have me, partly because of my skills and partly because my father was president of the UMWA District 17 and the paper, of course, wanted the support of the major unions. He called himself Scoop after he became a newspaper guy. Scoop was put in charge of Labor’s Daily by the International Typographical Union. It was a big job. This union was divided into two factions. One faction financially supported the paper while the other faction opposed. The faction that opposed was all in a fuss because of the Red Scare that McCarthy got started up in Wheeling. This faction, because they feared the paper was a little too far left of the ledger, so to speak, wanted to dissolve the paper. I wasn’t ashamed of being apart of the paper and I’m not afraid to mention that some of the people I was associated with were affiliated with socialists although I wasn’t directly involved with their politics. I refused to disassociate myself with people because of their political views as long they were pro-labor. From the way I understand it, Labor’s Daily was eventually dissolved as a result of the Red Scare. We were on the FBI’s bad side (laughs).

CK – You have recently published a book on the labor movement, specifically the UMWA in West Virginia and the Mine Wars called, When Miners March. When did you write the book and what made you decide to write it?

WB – Well, I had thought about it a little bit for a while when I was taking my various writing courses at Columbia and I bumped into another student there who was writing something on the Mine Wars for a master’s degree or something and I thought maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea for me to start thinking seriously about writing something on it. I wrote it while I was working for Labor’s Daily and they published it in the newspaper as a serial. I was good friends with the editor of the paper and he wanted badly for his paper to be supported by the UMW, so we thought it would be a good idea to publish what I had written.

CK – How did your work finally make it into book form?

WB – It became a book many years later. It was originally written around 1952, I wanted to get it published as a book, but I was busy with other jobs as a freelance writer and it kind of dropped out of my plan. I did get an agent at one time, but she and I didn’t get along too well. She did say there were some publishers interested but the work was a bit too controversial, something that not everybody’s going to be agreeable about, you know. My book is very much biased in favor of the coal miners, well I don’t really think of it as being biased (laughs) but anyways, I thought it important that the coal miners’ story be told.
So, many years later, I moved down to where I am now in Winfield and one day somebody tapped on my door. There was this guy standing outside and he had something under his arm and he told me he was looking for Bill Blizzard and I said, “Well, you found him.” (laughs). He explained to me that he had gotten a copy of my manuscript and had been using it in teaching some labor history classes out in the Midwest and he had tracked me down. He asked me if I would like to get it published and I thought, why not?

CK – Who was the man who found you?

WB – His name is Wesley Harris.

CK – What do you want people to take from your book?

WB – I wanted to show how people lived and give in great detail the things that the newspapers had ignored, not being very sympathetic to the miners. I wanted to cover the years leading up to Blair Mountain and show what deeds had been done to the miners and how such things had forced them into violent action, to where they felt they had no other alternative. Whether they were correct or not in their actions, I’m not going to say. I know my father thought they were correct.

CK – Let’s talk for a moment about your personal recollections from the Mine Wars. After the Armed March on Logan and the Battle of Blair Mountain, your father, along with many others was tried for treason and murder. Although you were very young, do you remember anything from the Treason Trials?

WB – The only thing I remember very vividly was sitting beside my father in the courtroom when the jury came in that acquitted him. I was sitting right beside him and as the jury came in my father watched very intensely and nervously, obviously, and as they came in my father sprang up from beside me almost straight up in the air and landed on the table in front of us. And there he was squatting on the table as the jury filed in and I wondered what in the world was he doing that for? (laughs) I remember that very well and of course after he was acquitted there was a big hullabaloo but I didn’t pay much attention to all of that, being only about five at the time. But I never will forget how my father acted when that jury came in.

CK – The Mine Wars were filled with a number of colorful leaders and characters from both sides, some of whom you knew. I’m going to mention a few names for you and I’d like you to run a few names by you and get your impression of these individuals.

WB – Okay.

CK – Frank Keeney.[2]

WB – Yeah, Frank. I didn’t really know him well early on, but I knew him much better in later years after he had been kicked out of the UMW by John Lewis and they wouldn’t let him back in. He tried to form his own union but it was later broken up, probably none too gently, by UMW organizers. But my father and Frank never did have any dislike for one another. He was a very decent guy who got a raw deal out of the whole situation. I bumped into him accidentally in Charleston when I was older and he was parking cars in downtown Charleston. Who could believe that Frank Keeney would end up as a parking lot attendant? But there he was. Later on, I got to know him and found that he was a strong supporter of my father before and after Blair Mountain. Frank and I became great friends.

CK – Fred Mooney.[3]

WB – Fred was, as far as I know, was a strong union fella, and I have no reason to believe otherwise. But Mooney, now this is secondhand, but according to my mother, Mooney had a reputation of being somewhat trigger happy. I’m not kidding. My parents had a theory that he was crazy. At least that was rumors I heard as a kid. They told me that around Mooney you’d better watch your back. Mooney invited my father to go squirrel hunting with him and Keeney told my father, “Don’t you go with him. He’ll shoot you.” My father replied, “Not if I shoot him first.” (laughs) They both did go hunting together and my father sat under a tree and Mooney never did anything. So it ended out all right I guess.

CK – Van Bittner.[4]

WB – I knew Van Bittner better than any of the rest of them because he worked with my father and was in our home a lot at the time. He came from a coal mining background. My only impression… Mr. Bitter… I thought he was an extremely bright capable man and at the same time I thought he was the most vain man I had ever met in my life (laughs). Simply because the way he spoke about himself and how he spoke about books and his opinions. He was vain. My father knew about it too but wanted to keep his job and Van was president of District 17 at the time. My father was working for him at the time, before he became president.

CK – T. C. Townsend.[5]

WB – (laughs) Old Tom! He was my father’s attorney during the treason trials. He also helped my father get some jobs before the Armed March and that was tough to do because my father wasn’t always the most welcome guy in the workplace if you know what I mean, because of his past and all. My father supported him when he ran for governor in 1932. Some people in the old days called him a crook, but I don’t know whether it was true or not.

CK – What would you like for people to remember about your father?

WB – That he was a very, very strong advocate of organized labor, that he was a coal miner and had been subjected to the same treatment as other miners of his day.

CK – Well, thank you so much for sharing some of your memories with me today.

WB – You’re quite welcome. My father would probably bang me on the head if he heard all that I just said, but he’s not around hear anything about it so I guess it’s okay.


[1] The Widen Strike (1952-1953) was a UMWA strike in Clay County, West Virginia. Violence in this strike, between company officials, strikers, and replacement workers, was a common occurrence. For more information read C. C. Stewart’s, “Strike Duty: A State Trooper Recalls Trouble in the Coalfields” in the Winter 1995 issue of Goldenseal.
[2] Also from Cabin Creek, Frank Keeney was one of the leaders of the Paint Creek, Cabin Creek Strike (1912-13) and UMWA District 17 president during the Armed March on Logan. He later formed his own union, the West Virginia Mine Workers.
[3] Fred Mooney served as UMWA District 17 Secretary-Treasurer from 1917-1924, and a close ally of Keeney’s. Mooney later wrote an autobiography entitled Struggle in the Coalfields.
[4] Bittner was a union organizer and closely connected with John L. Lewis. Bittner worked with the UMWA in Alabama, Illinois, and West Virginia, where he briefly served as District 17 president in the 1930s. Bittner became a strong political voice in the state during the 1940s.
[5] A Charleston lawyer and former coal miner, T. C. Townsend defended Blizzard, Keeney, Mooney, and other miners during the Treason Trials. Townsend later ran for governor in 1932 on the Republican ticket, with the support of Van Bittner and Blizzard, but lost to Democrat Herman Guy Kump.