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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Entry 6: Overcoming Tobacco Road



February 26, 2014

Dear Friends:

Re:  Entry 6

We had a word, more like a phrase, we used in my town, a particular word to describe people that were dirty, or unkempt, or more to the point: Slobs.  Invariably, upon encountering a person or group of people who did not meet the prevailing ethical and/or cleanliness standards, someone would shout out:  “look at those no good filthy tobbacoroaders”.  That was the word:  tobbacoroaders.  Tobacco Roaders: Those persons who live in the condition of the residents of one Tobacco Road, a mythical place no doubt, somewhere in the south, populated by filthy children who left their toys in their yards  and did not wipe their feet.  Adults of this ilk have low morals, consume copious amounts of National Bohemian and generally lie about, avoiding work.  My entire childhood I encountered this word.  I swear I was nearly twenty years old before I realized that it was an actual English word (or words) and not some mix of Serbian and West Virginian, sort of like the old country with a hillbilly accent.  People wouldn’t say it as much as spew it from their mouths, as in “looka those nogood filty tobbagaroadas….  (try it, you have to say it rather quickly with the words all slurred together to get the full effect) Often, in fits of rage, one would only have to hear that collection of syllables…tobaccoroader…and it was all it took to understand the meaning of the sentence.  I have tried to use the word myself, mostly in reference to my children, but I find myself annunciating the syllables to the point that they actually make sense and it sounds more like a place than a curse.  It was only later, when the internet came around, that I realized that phrase came from a book about people in the south.  Yet it was, and remains-- among a dwindling number of eighty-year olds-- a mumbled, yet curiously descriptive, curse.  Unfortunately, once labeled as such, you practically had to move away to lose the label.  Sad indeed, in that in a state often the butt of national jokes we had our own caste system.  We still do, I would imagine.

One of the reasons I stopped watching the news—most TV news—almost two years ago, was that it was one thing to grow up in West Virginia, but it was quite another to be continually exposed to the national perception of the way things are (or are portrayed):  to be the national tobaccoroadder.  Part of the reason the news is so infuriating is that, depending upon the political sway of the commentator, we are either a group of blissful, ignorant, gun-toting hill people, frolicking across a bucolic mountain landscape swigging moonshine, or we are a racist, immoral backwoods band of obese chain-smoking, coal-burning, outlaw-dancing, meth-lab hiding inbred illiterates; there apparently are no other alternatives.  In January it was actually a national joke by a Detroit newspaper reporter that after the Charleston water disaster we could get back to stopping incest; she was roundly condemned (and shockingly stupid for putting it on the internet) but nonetheless the stereotype lies just under the surface.  I will give you that most West Virginians tend to stereotype as well, with Detroit being viewed as a collection of crack houses out of which come rental car fleets of Chryslers; Detroiters may view most of us as living shoeless in a land of quarter-moon outhouses; the painful reality for this country is that the crack house analog, although quite incorrect, is closer to the reality.

Which brings me all the way around to my point:  When Gideon was hiding wheat in a wine press (because, I assume, he was a terrified teenager in the midst of a national invasion), the Lord called him a Mighty Warrior. Not a dirty, skinny, scared, unknowing youth, but a Mighty Warrior.  There being no tobacco in the Middle East at the time, there were no roads named after it and therefore those roads contained no residents who could be easily categorized, stigmatized and then dismissed.  Gideon was a Mighty Warrior because the Lord saw him for what he could be and not what he was, not his background, not his race, not even his religion (yes, go back and read it in Judges, it is a little more than surprising).   The challenge I have always felt West Virginians have had to overcome is the simple fact that the accent with which we speak is equated to ignorance and the affability and kindness we exhibit in our dealings with each other is equated to weakness.  Neither of those are necessarily true but are hurdles nonetheless.  

I want to be a Mighty Warrior. I believe you become what you think you are.  Don’t become as others type you to be.  The Lord sees your potential, not your present condition.

I remain,

Fessler