Hello, Everybody. Sorry for the lack of updates in July. I spent a week accompanying our church’s youth group to one of my hometowns: Charleston, West Virginia. Then another week shuttling my son back and forth to film camp. And then the week after that catching up from being gone the previous two weeks. Which means it is time to get back on the horse and update the blog!
As you could tell from the West Virginia-themed clips I left up while away, I was off visiting the state where I spent most of my childhood. This was only my second time back in Charleston since graduating from high school in 1980. I am a proud graduate of George Washington High School, a distinction I share with Jennifer Garner and thousands of others. (No, I don’t know Jennifer. She graduated ten years after me. Though based on her GW reminiscences, we had several of the same teachers).
Though I was born in Indiana, I have to admit that my Hoosier roots don’t run very deep. My family moved out of the state when I was three and I never returned except to visit relatives. Most of my Hoosier empathy gets conjured by the Indianapolis 500 and, yes, I do blink back a tear when I hear Jim Nabors’ sing “Back Home Again In Indiana” every year.
But truthfully I am more Mountaineer than Hoosier. I lived in West Virginia from age 6 to age 17. I grew from a small boy to a young man while living in the Mountain State. It is where I went to school. It is where I made my first friends. It is where I experience my first love. It is where I started writing. It is where I had all those formative experiences that made me who I am today.
For the first six years, I lived in WV’s northern panhandle in the town of Weirton which used to be part of the industrial backbone of America. The steel mill was the heartbeat of the town. If you didn’t work at the mill, you worked at something that supported the mill. The furnaces ran 24/7 giving the town its distinctive look and smell. My cousins still remember us showing them piles of spent coke still glowing in the night.
Weirton would not be a town that readily came to mind as a movie location but it certainly has been immortalized in several great American films. It was one of the towns that made up Clairton, Pennsylvania in the Oscar-winning THE DEER HUNTER (1978). It was the setting for RECKLESS (1984) starring Aiden Quinn and Darryl Hannah. Most recently, it masqueraded as Lillian, Ohio in SUPER 8 (2011). The school the kids attend in that film is my old Marland Heights elementary school. It is like watching my childhood come back to life.
For my teen years, we moved to the state capital of Charleston. If northern WV was all about steel, southern West Virginia is all about coal and chemicals. Union Carbide operated the plants in nearby Dunbar and Nitro and South Charleston. And coal mines drove the countryside economy. I learned to drive in Charleston. I drank my first beer there (no moonshine for me). My first date, my first kiss, and my first broken heart all happened in Charleston.
Being back in the state this month was like being back home. My only regret is that I could not stay longer than I did.
Some basic West Virginia facts: The state sport is football. The state cathedral is Mountaineer Stadium. The state recreation is hunting. The first battle of the American Revolution happened in Point Pleasant (maybe). John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry helped ignite the War Between the States two years later. The first land battle of the Civil War happened in Philippi.
Northerners think the state belongs in the south. Southerners believe it belongs in the north. Easterners believe it belongs in the west. Westerners think it is part of the east. West Virginians like it this way because they prefer to belong to nobody but themselves. Their roots run deep into the heart of the Appalachians. Family is important above all. It is the state that gave us Jerry West and Pearl S. Buck, Brad Paisley and Mother’s Day. But it is also the state that gave us Mothman and the Hatfields and McCoys.
Quite simply, if you want to understand America, you have to understand West Virginia. The state is a part of me and I am a part of it. And I am more than happy to feel its Appalachian heritage coursing through my veins each time I write.