The Burlington Hawk-Eye
The Hawk Eye
Smile When You Say "Hillbilly"
October 13, 1983
My hillbilly daughter-in-law, Katherine Cole, MD, is a country doctor in Wapello, Iowa. (They call them Family Practice Physicians now.) I never realized how country she was until she took me down home to visit her folks in southeastern Kentucky.
With a tailwind, it took only three hours and a half in the old Cessna, on a bright autumn day, to go from the flat corn country on the west side of the Mississippi, to the green hollows at the foot of the Cumberland Gap. But it is a journey a very pleasant one into another America and another time.
We crossed the Ohio at Louisville and skirted the Blue Grass country below Lexington. Katherine's father, Sam was waiting for us at the little regional airport at London, just where the mountains begin. We drove 30 miles deeper into the hills to Barbourville, which proudly calls itself "The Oldest Town Of The Mountains." (What might be "hills" out west are mountains here.)
The western folds of the Appalachian, they spill over here from Virginia, ridge after ridge of them, thick and dark with pine and cedar, spanning the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Their slopes are steep and the valleys between them usually only wide enough for a road or railroad track beside a stream, and here and there a house crouched against the slope. These are the hollows.
"We'll go climb Grandma's mountain," Katherine announced, after her mother Joyce stuffed us with a Kentucky ham lunch. That may sound like an episode of out of the Walton's, but it's for real. Katherine's grandmother, Bess Gander, does have a mountain. The little white house where she lives alone up Long Branch Hollow is at the foot of it at the bottom of her nearly perpendicular 70 acres. We scrambled all the way to the top, through the thick second-growth timber and over the outcroppings of rock, 500 feet about the valley floor.
Grandma Bess had walked down the road to the store and bought cold Cokes to give us when we came down the mountain "I'm going to be 79 next week," she said, "and I've never been up in an airplane." "How about tomorrow?" we asked. "Sure," she said, without hesitation. "Just don't come by until I get my hair fixed."
Grandma Gander seems typical of Barbourville. There's a straightforward, no-nonsense air about these mountain folks. Maybe it has something to do with the confinement of the ridges and hollows.
Daniel Boone trod these slopes. One of the main streets is Daniel Boone Drive and posters in the store windows announce the upcoming annual Daniel Boone Festival. The first shot fired in the Civil War in Kentucky was heard here. The Rebels captured the town for a while, but the mountain people stuck with the Union and the county's solid Republican to this day.
Katherine took us to the First Baptist Church Sunday morning and any thought I might have had of keeping that from the Lord was shattered when Pastor M.A. Reese had us stand up so the congregation could welcome Katherine back home.
We went up to the airport after church and Grandma strapped in the Cessna with hardly a qualm. "What if I get sick?" she asked. "You have to clean it up," we said, citing the only strict rule we have. The possibility was not mentioned again. We flew up the hollow edgewise; one wing dipped down toward the creek, so Grandma could see her house.
In the evening, we drove down to the Gap where Americans burst through the mountains to people a continent, and where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky now all come together. In all directions the green folds of the mountains seem to shelter this quiet corner from the restless world. Of course, the world intrudes. There's precious little land here for crops; the strip coalmines are mostly abandoned; unemployment is high. A recent survey shows this has the fifth lowest per capita income of any congressional district in the country.
And it is the least educated of any of the 435 districts in the nation with the fewest high school graduates per capita. Not only does Katherine, with her medical degree, defy those odds; her whole family does: Sam had a year of college; Joyce has her degree and works in the local school system; brother Dave, reporter-photographer and sometime editor of the local Mountain Advocate (Mountain Aggravator, some say) has his masters; sister LeAnn is a senior at Eastern Kentucky.
None of which is any more impressive than the sausage and eggs, grits and biscuits with which Joyce sent us on our way, back to the flat country.
I think I've finally persuaded Katherine that "hillbilly" is a term of affection.
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