A Town Called War
September 8th, 2019
“And it’s all thanks to Obama, too,” the man said, scratching his chin lazily. “That most’ve us’ve lost our jobs, I mean.” Only his eyes, watery and blue, peeked through the black soot that coated his skin. He would have blended perfectly into the wall of unmined coal beside him if it weren’t for the neon green safety stripes banding his regulation-issue work pants.
His voice came out Southern, but not the smooth, elegant drawl of South Carolina or Georgia -- these were the thick intonations of Appalachia, arching phrases slipping from his lips like a stream of warm mud. “Was his war on coal that did it,” he told me knowingly, savoring the word in his mouth like a sweet: coal. “Was what took some forty thousand of our jobs in just this state.”
The man’s name was Alan, which was easy to remember because it was tattooed in big block letters down his meaty forearm. He was thirty, and a coal miner; he’d been in the mines since his teens, dropping a full-ride scholarship to a local college for what he, and thousands of others, were sure would be a secure job for centuries. “People’ll always need coal,” he told me, staring with unwavering certainty into my eyes. “Same as people’ll always need to eat or breathe.”
This was War, West Virginia, the fifth poorest county in America: a land with mountains blown flat by miners hungry for shiny black rocks to burn; a land of no dentists and of toothless gums; a land with an annual income per person of about nine thousand dollars. A century ago, this was a community flourishing in the heart of the American coal boom, providing well-paying jobs for seven hundred thousand. Now, the city of War has less than nine hundred inhabitants; almost half the population is under the poverty line and around a third of it is illiterate. The place even feels abandoned, with rusted-up cars half-swallowed by kudzu at every roadside stop and more homes boarded up than open to the summer air. Only the occasional wandering passerby acts as a reminder of the remaining civilization. It’s terrifying and strangely beautiful.
Various official statistics offer a broad range of unemployment rates in War, from zero to forty-six percent, but locals suggest it’s closer to the latter. When I asked Buster, an employee of the local AmeriCorps project, what he thought the rate might be, he took a long draw from his cigarette, then chuckled and shook his head. “‘Bout ninety.”
Coal jobs were a gamble even back in the day, when their myriad dangers -- cave-ins that turn your bones into thin powder; mistimed dynamite blasts that tear apart rock and flesh alike; inhaled silica dust that embeds itself in the fabric of your lungs and stops your breathing -- were somewhat offset by abnormally good pay. But now, the pay isn’t all that good and the jobs are fewer and fewer between. With added focus on climate change prevention, combustible pollutants like coal are being phased out of use. Coal miners lose these jobs, less money goes into the town, and people move out. Environmentally conscious Democrats like Obama (alongside many others) were a big part of that, turning people like Alan against him.
As I’m thinking about all this, the conversation shifts to the election, and Alan’s co-worker Charlie pipes up. “When Hillary says she’s gonna get rid of coal -- how is it I vote for that? Vote for me to lose my job? For my family to not eat?” And therein lies the crux of Trump’s victory in areas like War. When these coal miners hear that Hillary’s cutting back on coal, they see even more of their wealth, success, and importance slipping through their fingers. And when they hear that Trump’s bringing it back -- why, he’s returning to them the lost glory of their vocation. They’re hearing that Trump can make their communities whole again; can end the struggle of paycheck to paycheck that’s plagued their families and friends.
That’s why they vote like they do. That’s why every single county in West Virginia voted for 45 in 2016. Never mind that Trump hasn’t actually done anything to help coal miners, never mind that his policies are actually cutting funding for the impoverished in their state and giving that money to the rich; Trump gives them hope -- from their perspective, far more stomachable than Hillary’s ugly truth.
But even with conservatism and poverty (and let’s not forget that this is the heart of the opioid crisis) tearing apart the community, no one’s given up. Alan, lucky enough to have a coal job, goes into the mines every day at the crack of dawn to shovel heaps of sparkling black minerals into the sunlight. Buster, working with a local AmeriCorps subsidiary, does free construction for those who can’t afford it with volunteer groups like mine from around the country. Manuel, three fingers on his left hand missing after an accident with a poorly operated train, still flatfoot dances with his friends and neighbors and works on the city council to make his hometown a better place. This is McDowell county. To us, the 5th poorest place in America, where jobs are draining away and people are living in poverty. To them, the land of shiny black coal, of fried green tomatoes, of tall mountains and deep valleys, of bluegrass and of flatfoot dancing, of a wilderness greener than any a paintbrush could conjure. To them, it’s still home.