Here are some excerpts and sample chapters from "The Spine of the Virginias", "Union, WV", "Harmonic Highways", "Providence, VA" "War, WV", "Orange, VA," "Keepers of the Tradition" and "Chasing the Powhatan Arrow".  I hope you enjoy them!


From War, WV

In this scene, my main character, Pug Graham, is walking the railroad tracks in a southern West Virginia coal town, thinking about what it means to be a West Virginian.


West Virginians can be among the largest-hearted, generous and warm on the planet, but in equal or greater measure suspicious, chary, and distrustful, especially of strangers.
Nobody ever comes to the hollows of West Virginia by accident. Everybody has a reason. Mostly they come home, because so many have left. Others come from curiosity, the burning desire to see and experience the poverty, inexorable crawl of natural reclamation, the deterioration of manmade structures and of the souls of the people themselves. Anybody else who came inevitably brought more misery: the land speculator, the coal baron, the gas driller.
A buzzard flew lazily overhead, its silvery underwings shining in the sunlight, drawing Pug’s attention upwards. To the north, up a hollow, was a staircased earthen embankment, denoting the lower end of a mountaintop removal mine. It was eerily lime-green with newly seeded grass. Pug spun around to take in the panorama of mountains enveloping the narrow valley and understood the impediments they provided to the transfer of people, materials, and ideas from inside out but more perniciously from outside in.
He remembered early forays elsewhere, back in his twenties, as he had made two cross-country trips and one to England to see a friend. He remembered feeling strangely alien, as if he wanted to feel like everyone else but knowing that as a West Virginian, he wasn’t. Somebody he met in Idaho wasn’t even aware that West Virginia existed a state, rather than as a region of Virginia, even though its statehood was decades earlier than Idaho’s, and had little idea of its whereabouts, even though it was surrounded by America’s most populous and affluent states.
To people like this, he’d extend his right hand, palm towards them, with the thumb and middle finger hyper-extended. He’d say, “Here’s what my state looks like,” relishing in the perceived vulgar brush-off. “And I’m from the very bottom,” he’d point with his left index finger at the base of his right palm, laughing to himself that no truer likeness could ever be drawn of any other state by any body part, Florida notwithstanding.
West Virginia was image-addled, and he understood why.


From Providence, VA

Here’s another excerpt from my book Providence, VA.  In this scene, my heroine Sammy Reisinger is working with her friend Jamaal Winston to learn some karate, in case she may need to defend herself. He is an economics professor by profession, also trapped in Grayson County by the circumstance of the collapse of the national power grid. Jackson, the horse Sammy has befriended, watches their lesson. Here, the enormity of their predicament overwhelms her and Jamaal looks to comfort her.


“I’m going to teach you a few basic stances. First, we’ll do the Ready Stance. I haven’t earned the title sensei, which means instructor, but it will have to do. You are the kohai, the student. First, we stand facing each other. Then we bow to each other, recognizing our worth to each other and to humanity. Like this,” he bowed from his waist. She returned the bow.
“Now then, when the sensei says, ‘Ready!’ you will close your hands, bend your elbows, and place your hands a few inches from your chest while simultaneously moving your right leg outward and placing it back on the ground at about the width of your shoulders, bending your knees slightly. Ready!”
Teacher and student assumed the Ready Position.
“Now then, let’s do a Forward Stance. You can do this from either side. Are you right-handed?”
“Okay, let’s do the right foot first. Move your right foot forward about one-and-a-half times the length of your foot. Like so. My right foot is still pointed forward. My right knee is bent while my back leg is straight. My shoulders are still straight. You can tell you have put your foot forward enough if you drop your back knee to the floor and put your fist between your feet and it touches both. Try it.
“Look what you can do from this stance. Your forward arm is your right. You can thrust it straight for a forward punch. You can thrust your back arm, your left, straight. This is called a reverse punch. You can kick from your back leg. Or you can get a front snap-kick. Let’s try this. Good. Again. Good.”
“Jamaal, I’m scared.”
“No, really,” she quivered. “I’ve never hit anybody before.”
“And I’m scared about what might happen to me. To us.”
“Focus on the task at hand. Try your kick again.”
She dropped her arms and started to cry. Soon her tears became a torrent, a full-fledged, unabashed wail. Jamaal walked to her and embraced her, but she was inconsolable. Her fit of agony and despair continued. The intensity of her grief was so violent that her body shook spontaneously. She choked on her tears, but they continued to flow, dampening his shirt.
“Oh, Sam,” he said, gently.
Gradually she regained her composure, but she continued to hold him. “I am so scared.”
He took her by the hand and led her to a nearby bench. “I’m scared, too,” he admitted. “A person would be crazy not to be scared right now. But we must overcome our fears.”
Seeing her still wavering, he said, “Sam, for whatever reason, we’re being tested. We’re not the first people who have ever been scared.
“I’m sure my ancestors experienced intense fear. They were scared when they were roped like wild horses on the plains of Africa and placed in chains into stinking, putrid holds in the bottom of ocean-going ships to sail to America. They were scared when as slaves they knew that at any time, their children could be sold away from them like chattel. They were scared when their daughters, younger than you, were forced to copulate with and bear the children of their masters. They were scared when they heard the drum-beats of the Civil War. When the war was over, they were freed, but were given nothing with which to earn a living or feed themselves. As sharecroppers, they were forever bound to poverty. They marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Jackson and were shot with water cannons and attacked by police dogs. I’m sure they were scared.
“My father’s father served in Korea, fighting for a country that never considered him a full citizen. He returned with a severe back injury and never was able to work another day in his life. And my own father was killed in a drive-by shooting in Memphis.
“That my country elected a black man as its president, that I was able to earn a PhD and get a job at one of the nation’s finest universities, that I married a wonderful woman, that I am now living in the home of a selfless woman who may die soon, and that at this very moment, I am in your presence, is breathtakingly astounding to me. I am humbled, I am amazed, and I am terrified. But you know what? We’re going to make it. Fuck this Pulse! I’m not about to piss away a legacy of multi-generational pain and anguish because we don’t have any goddamn electricity.”


From the novel Providence, VA

Here’s an excerpt from my book Providence, VA. My heroine is Sammy Reisinger, a 17-year old violin prodigy from a wealthy New Jersey family. She has inherited a priceless Cremonese violin from her grandfather and is schooled in the classics. Becoming enamored with traditional Appalachian music, she decides to visit the venerable Old Fiddlers Convention in Southwest Virginia. While there performing, tragedy strikes, leaving her seemingly trapped and orphaned in the tiny community of Providence, VA. Sammy decides that to earn her keep, she will assist the local midwife and learn the profession herself. Emily, her mentor, is sick and cannot assist in this delivery, so Sammy must go alone.

In this scene, she has ridden Jackson, her horse, into the town of Fries to collect any personal effects of Quint, her host, who was recently murdered.  



After doing chores in the morning, Sammy decided to return in the afternoon to Fries to see if there were any personal effects of Quint’s still at the pharmacy. After lunch, she saddled Jackson and strapped on her midwife’s bag. It was a cool day with lazy, puffy clouds overhead.

She found a woman named Helen Nuckolls staffing the store. Nuckolls told her that she’d worked for Quint briefly years earlier, and that Annie Mullins had asked her to be there temporarily until longer-term plans could be devised.

Angie handed Sammy Quint’s spare reading glasses, a silver cup, a pocket knife, and some change. As Sammy was preparing to depart, a man came running into the store, shouting for her.

“Ms. Sammy, Ms. Sammy, please you must help! My wife is going to have the baby!”

“Calm down. I remember when Emily and I called at your house a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember your name.”

“It’s Emilio Vasquez. Please come!” He grabbed her by the sleeve of her sweatshirt and walked her outside. “You must come right away. My wife is in pain and I think she’s having problems.”

“Let me go and get Emily,” Sammy suggested.

Walking towards his moped, Vasquez said, “I already went there. Ms. Emily is very sick. She said she wouldn’t be able to come. She wanted you to assist.”

“Are you sure your wife is having problems? As I recall, her due date is still a couple of weeks away.”

“Yes, please come. She’s in a lot of pain.”

He turned the key and kicked the kick-starter and the little machine came to life. Sammy untied Jackson’s reins and hoisted herself atop him. Vasquez sped northwards on Ivanhoe Road, then turned on Winding Road towards Stevens Creek. Sammy trotted Jackson and occasionally ran him, but she couldn’t remember exactly how far away they lived and didn’t know how hard she could push Jackson. Every few minutes, Vasquez stopped to wait for her. Each road they took was smaller and more remote than the one before.

Finally, they arrived at the Vasquez house, a tiny wood-frame structure surrounded by forests. He parked the moped and ran to her. “Please hurry.”

Sammy grabbed her midwife’s bag and trotted inside, leaving Vasquez to tie up Jackson. The expectant mother was in a fetal position on her living room floor, with their three girls playing with dolls near her.

“Hi, Mrs. Vasquez, I’m Sammy Reisinger, Emily Ayres’ assistant. Emily is sick today but I’m here to help you. How are you doing?”

The dark-haired Hispanic woman rolled over towards her. “I’m in a lot of pain.” She was wearing a loose-fitting yellow T-shirt that said, “Bebé a bordo,” and navy-blue sweat pants, stretched to the limit.

“Are you having contractions?”

“Yes. I don’t know how often.”

“Can you get up? Would you like to go to your bedroom?”

“I’ll try.” Sammy helped her as Emilio walked inside and helped as well.

“Remind me of your name.”

“Estella,” she said, with a Spanish intonation.

“Okay, Estella, I’ll do the best I can.”

Emilio and Sammy placed the pregnant woman on her bed. Sammy noticed a large figurine of Jesus of Nazareth tacked to the wall above the bed. Emilio genuflected towards it. Sammy removed the fetoscope from her bag and warmed the sensor in her hand. “I’m going to listen and see how the baby’s doing.”

She lifted Estella’s shirt and placed the diaphragm on her distended belly and began to listen. She couldn’t hear any heartbeat. She moved the diaphragm from place to place, but couldn’t hear anything except the faint sound of blood movement. She took the diaphragm and placed it between Estella’s breasts and listened for her heart, simply to reassure herself that the fetoscope was working. Sure enough, she heard Estella’s heart clearly and distinctively, although it was beating rapidly.

“We may have a problem,” she said sadly.

“What is it?” asked Emilio.

 “I’m not hearing the baby’s heartbeat.” Sammy felt Estella’s belly. It felt full, balloon-like. “I don’t feel the baby’s body or head distinctly. Roll to your side and let me listen again.”

Estella began to moan. “I’m having more contractions.”

“Do you remember how long since the last ones?”

“I don’t know. When Emilio wasn’t here, I was trying to keep track, but the children were fussy and I couldn’t concentrate. Owww! Owww!”

“Let me check your cervix.” Sammy removed the cloth tape measure from her bag. “Only four centimeters. I’m afraid this is not good.”

“What’s wrong?” asked Estella.

“I don’t know of any other way of saying this. I think your baby is dead,” Sammy said sadly.

¡Dios mío!

“How will we know?” Estella queried.

“I don’t really know,” admitted Sammy, now sweating herself. “I’ve never seen a fetus die in utero.” Sammy placed her hands again on Estella’s belly.

“Owww! That really hurts!”

“I’m sorry! I don’t mean to hurt you, but I’m not sure what’s going on. Emily gave me a handbook. Let me let you rest for a moment and I’ll see what I can find out.” She began thumbing through her book. She tried to ignore the sobs and heartbroken cries of the couple. One of the children in the living room began screaming. “I’m going to step outside and see about the children.” Sammy went into the living room and held the youngest, a girl of about two years. She had on a shirt but no pants or underwear. There was a dark spot on the shag carpeting where one of the girls, likely this one, had urinated. The room smelled awful.

Sammy took the girl in her arms and held her tight. “Settle down, please, oh please.” The girl gradually began to calm down and stop crying. Sammy said to all three girls, “Please behave yourselves. Your mother needs you to be good. I need to get back to her and try to help her.”

She walked back inside. Estella was crying; Emilio was crying as well. Estella wiped her face with her shirt and said, “We understand that this baby is dead. We mourn for him. I am ready for him to leave my body.”

“Estella, I don’t mean to scare you, because I really don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but our problems have only begun.”

“What do you mean?” asked Emilio.

“When a baby is bring born, the baby does much of the work. Your baby is dead, so he cannot help. Your cervix isn’t dilated enough. So the baby is acting like a plug for the blood your body is feeding into the uterine cavity. I need to look at your cervix again.” It was still constricted, about five centimeters. “I’m going to try to stretch it.” She put her index and ring fingers of both hands together and pushed them inside, then began to spread them.

“Ow!” the woman screamed. “Owww! Please stop.”

Sammy persisted.

“Owww! Dear God!”

Sammy removed her fingers and a burst of bloody fluid flowed from the cavity. “What’s that?” asked Emilio.

“I think the placenta has been abrupted. The placental lining has separated from the uterus. Her body is trying to expel the fetus and the placenta. I’m going back in again.”

“Owww! My God!”

The children cried from the other room.

Sammy stretched the cervix as much as she could bear, hearing the woman scream. Then she said, “I’m going to let you rest for a moment. Then we have to begin again. I’m going to give you some cotton root bark to help see if we can induce your body into labor.” She went into the kitchen and found some water which she poured into a glass. She mixed a few drops of the fluid in her tiny vial in it. She returned and forced Estella to drink half of it. “In ten minutes, I’ll need you to drink the rest.”

She pulled Emilio aside and said, “Estella’s body is trying to feed blood into the placenta. But the placenta has probably detached. So the blood is pooling in the uterine cavity. There is no way to stop the bleeding. She is only 5-6 cm dilated, so the dead fetus can’t be expelled. I’m guessing she is losing a half-cup of blood every minute. We’ve got to get the dead fetus out or she will die.”

“What do we do?”

“I don’t know. I’m not a surgeon, so I can’t simply slit her belly and pull the fetus out like a cesarean section. I’m sure she’d die if I did. So I need to keep stretching her cervix.”

She returned to Estella and feeding her the remaining cotton root bark solution. She removed her sweatshirt as she explained what she needed to do. “I’m going to keep stretching and you need to keep pushing.” They worked for another 45 minutes or so, both sweating profusely in the cool room.

The woman screamed in agony. “Este dolor me esta matando.”

Sammy turned to Emilio and asked what she said. “The pain is killing her.”

They had made little progress when Sammy noticed that Estella was beginning to go in and out of consciousness. “Work with me, Estella! Don’t leave me!”

Estella drifted out of consciousness again. Emilio yelled, “¡Pelea por tu vida!

Sammy became panicky. Indecision wracked her brain as she struggled with what to do. “Keep her talking, Emilio. Keep her awake!”

“Her hands are getting cold. She’s shivering,” Emilio whispered.

 She noticed Estella’s lips were turning purple. Sammy realized that Estella was bleeding to death. Sammy had no forceps, but she knew the fetus needed to be extracted. She squeezed her right hand inside Estella’s uterus. She felt the fetus’ head, but found nothing to grab. She pushed the head back, hoping to extend her hand inside further. Estella awoke from her light-headedness and she screamed. Sammy pulled out her hand, empty. Emilio was wracked with vicarious agony.

¡Mi esposa, mi querida esposa!

Sammy took a moment to gather her thoughts. Every scenario she could envision had little chance of success. She could do nothing, and Estella would surely die. She could slit her belly and do a C-section, but she had no knowledge of how and few tools to repair the cut. She could slice the inner wall of the birth canal, with likely the same result. But whatever decision she was going to make, she needed to make it quickly!

She reached into her bag and withdrew a sheathed scalpel. “I’m going to slit her birth canal,” she told Emilio.

Emilio heard her and recoiled in horror, but Estella didn’t. She was unconscious. Sammy made a slit about 1” deep at two o-clock and another at ten o-clock. She reached inside with her right hand and grabbed the dead fetus under its chin, reaching with the fingertips of her index and ring fingers. As gently as she could, she slid her hand and the fetus back through the enlarged canal and into the outside world. Blood spewed everywhere, both from the uterus and the surgical cuts. The fetus was blue and lifeless. It was a boy. She cut its cord and set it at the foot of the bed.

She looked to her bag for a needle and thread to suture the wound. When she looked, Estella’s face was ashen and comatose, wide-eyed and frozen in a rictus of distress. Emilio was crying. Sammy reached for Estella’s neck to see if should could detect a pulse from the jugular vein. Nothing. She looked at Emilio and said, “She’s gone. She’s dead. I’m so sorry.”

The children walked inside and saw Emilio crying over their dead mother. The two year old saw the blood and the fetus, and screamed. The children ran to their mother and hugged her lifeless body. Emilio said to the corpse, “Adiós mi amor.” 

“I am sorry, so, so sorry,” Sammy said painfully. “I wish I had known what to do. Her death is my fault.”



From Harmonic Highways, in Chapter 10, Dickenson County

 Jim “Scott” Mullins came from a long line of local musicians. He told me, “My father was a coal miner but was also a tremendously influential musician. He passed away about 10 years ago. There are many people with the surname Mullins around here. My daddy used to say that you could overturn every second or third rock in Dickenson County and find a Mullins underneath it.”
Scott is a young man (by my standards), about to turn 40 years old. He works in maintenance for the county at the courthouse. He is the only one of four brothers who had never worked in the coal mines.
He continued, “My family has been singing since my great-grandfather’s time. My primary work is on vocals. Our music has always revolved around our church work. I am a Free Will Baptist. The roots of our church lie with the German Baptists, or the Church of the Brethren. I’ve been told that my great-grandfather, D. P. ‘Doc’ Mullins, had stacks of old song books. From them, he taught virtually everyone in the family how to sing. We were taught the notes within an octave: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do, and how to harmonize. I have never read music. Everything is by ear. It is an organic thing, and it has always been part of who I am.
“My father and grandfather were two of the four members of the Mullins Family Quartet, which also included my grandfather, Hie A. Mullins, my grandmother, Frances Mullins, and my mother, Myrtle Mullins. They sang on the radio. They sang at churches. They sang at pie suppers and at countless funerals. They did three- and four-part harmony a cappella singing. The songs I grew up hearing were sung in a kind of soulful “drone” that was mostly derived from the old-world style of Scots-Irish singing. You can still hear the echoes of that old traditional sound in the old country churches.
“This is the type of music that has become the sound of Ralph Stanley. There can be many notes sang even within a single word.
“My daddy always pushed me away from the life of the miner. Miners love the work but they recognize the danger. We went to Montana years ago to do some concerts. We sang for an audience that was mainly farmers. Daddy was trying to explain the lure of coal mining. He sang Merle Travis’ song, Dark as a Dungeon. It has this lyric:
It’s a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.
“There was a hush over the crowd. The people in the audience could feel the pain in his voice.”
I said, “It seems to me that what has made Dr. Ralph Stanley such a legend is that every pain that he, his brother, his family, or his community has endured comes through to the audience in the tones of his voice. His enduring presence is like a metaphor for the mountains. His voice has a haunting quality that evokes emotion in the listener.”
Scott said, “That is evident. When you hear his voice you hear a voice of the ages. You hear the voices of the Scots-Irish immigrants coming to this area over a century ago. You hear the cries of the Civil War soldiers in battle. You hear the pain of coal miners. These voices have shaped the way the people of the coal fields are today. We are shaped by hardship, tragedy and struggle. But we have always had the tenacity to survive and to keep going. It is through the mercy of the Lord and the hard work of our ancestors that we are in a position to keep going today.
“My daddy was a minister and a songwriter in addition to being a coal miner. He wrote some of his best songs while he was at work in the mine. He said that sometimes the miners would sing as they were being transferred in the man-trip or when they were taking a shower after their shift. Whenever they could, they would do what they could to shake off the blues of being in such a place. It is amazing to me even to this day that daddy could scratch out such brilliant songs on little pieces of paper. We have saved these scraps of paper and they are still smudged with his fingerprints of coal dust. These songs were inspired by the good Lord above.
“The songs and the testimony that my dad left behind have left an indelible impression on this community. We sang at more church services than I can count and at hundreds of funerals.
“I live in the type of community that I think most people in America don’t understand. We depend on one another and we try to lift up one another in any way that we can. I have encountered people in the stores or on the street who will say to me, ‘Scott, when I pass, I want you to sing at my funeral.’ I remember lots of times when daddy would give up things that he wanted to do around the house on his days off but instead he would go to sing at funerals. It is a heady responsibility but we embrace it. As Christian believers, we feel that it is our responsibility to do the work that God has commissioned us to do.
“We have sung in churches representing many denominations. We will sing just about anywhere we are welcomed.
“We have many great musicians in this area and there is a lot of singing. Our identity as musicians out here, for better or worse, has largely been defined by a single song sung by a single musician, and that is Dr. Ralph Stanley singing O Death, in the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? That movie came out 10 years ago and Ralph had been singing for over a half-century before that. To the people who care about this type of music, he was a legend decades earlier. But it is still what fans expect to hear when they come to the Virginia Coalfields.
“Dr. Ralph’s music is rooted directly in the traditional music of the Primitive Baptist Church. There is a person who leads off the song. Everyone else then becomes the follower. It becomes a call-and-response pattern. You can hear the same type of thing in the old ballads from the Scots-Irish settlers. Our music is forged out of distress and in hardships. They say great art can come from great pain. The tragedies we have endured have made our music distinct.
“People think of Appalachia as being a relatively stagnant place, but nothing could be further from the truth. During the boom and bust cycles of the coal industry and in front of a backdrop of increasing mechanization and the ebb and flow of (labor) union influence, people from the coal fields have been forced into significant adjustments time and time again.
“The music differs here in that it is born of greater anguish. There are several coal camps in Dickenson County that today are ghost towns. Two of them are Clinchco and Trammel. There are many abandoned homes and businesses. Many good people still live there, but these areas are washed in poverty and sorrow.
“Lots of my great aunts and uncles moved away to the cities of the north to find work in the factories. They made the best of it and raised their families. Mommy and Daddy went up to Ohio at one point looking for work. After only a few days, they decided to come home and declared, ‘This is where we belong.’ Daddy went back to work in the coal mine.
“We are all excited about being on The Crooked Road and about the possibilities that that entails. The Crooked Road has helped us to build connections to other musicians that probably would not have happened otherwise. So it benefits musicians, too, and not just the tourists or the hospitality industry.
“Not long ago, we were in a show with some singing coal miners from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia who came to the Jettie Baker Center in Clintwood. They are “The Men of the Deeps,’ and have traveled to a lot of places to perform their choral show of traditional and mining songs. We instantly made a connection with them, both musically and culturally. The Crooked Road organization was a great catalyst in making that exchange a reality. Being involved with Crooked Road events like that has enriched our community greatly.
“We once played at FloydFest. It was incredible. We were these traditional conservative church-going folks mixing in an atmosphere that seemed a bit like Woodstock. What we saw there blew our minds. But everything worked out fine.
“We have weathered the storms and the hardships. Many people around here are willing to do just about anything to provide for their families. Those of us who are here today consider this a great place to live. People here are connected to the land. There is an incredible sense of place here. This is the reason why mountaintop removal mining is so devastating. My wife and I are raising our family on land that has been in her family for generations. When a man looks out from his front porch on a mountain for his entire life and then over a period of a few months it is carted away, it is completely devastating.
“I understand both sides of the mountaintop removal issue. The job of destroying that mountain to remove the coal is feeding someone’s family. But my feeling is that this activity is destructive beyond what God would have wanted for our society in its use of the land. The Lord wanted us to be keepers of this place. The Scriptures say that we are sojourners. We are passing through this place, borrowing it to pass on to future generations. Destroying a mountain hurts what God created for us. It’s awful to say but I can see a generation coming along that would just about dig under their own family graveyard to get the coal underneath it. Those graves may mean nothing to some people. But that is my identity. They are my people. That is why I am where I am, and who I am.
“The landscape here humbles a man. I have lived here all my life and every morning it humbles me. I like material things as much as the next guy. But these are not the things that drive our lives. We are driven by our sense of place, our sense of community, and our heritage. These are the things we value.
“I appreciate your interest in us and our culture. We’ve been represented in many ways. We’ve been written about, filmed, and recorded. Dad helped National Geographic do a story almost 20 years ago. He took them into the mine and through the communities. We were anxious to see the article when it came out. For the most part, they told the truth. But the first photo showed an old lady in a shack of a house with a gun rack over the picture of Jesus. Another page had a huge aerial photo of a strip mine. Still another page had a coal miner giving a goodbye kiss to his toddler grandson while his wife looks on. We just felt like they had the story written before they even came and were seduced by the urge to show stereotypes as they envisioned them.
“Anybody can find the negative stuff here. But we also have strength of family, generations of hard-working people, and pride in jobs well done. We have poets. We have musicians. We have artists. We have ministers. We have deep-rooted beliefs about right and wrong. We don’t need material things to have rich, successful lives. All the toys in the world or all the trappings of our modern society do not build happiness or satisfaction. What keeps people content is their link to the culture.
“I have lived my entire life in the shadow of a great man: my daddy. He only enjoyed three years in retirement before he passed away. If I can achieve a fraction of the accomplishments that he reached in his life, I will feel successful. It is my prayer to transfer that legacy to my children and then to my grandchildren.
“Sometimes when I am on stage, it’s a blessing to see the songs I sing bring a tear to a person’s eye. It will strike a chord or stir an emotion. I believe that the Lord speaks to his people through the moving of a good spiritual song. The songs give us great hope of a brighter day ahead. I always want the Lord to use me as His instrument, and I give Him glory for it all.
“Some years ago, we did some work with Ethel Caffie-Austin. She is a big, robust African American woman, known as West Virginia’s ‘First Lady of Gospel Music.’ Daddy had written a song called Amazing Grace Oh What a Blessing. It has sort of become an anthem of our family’s singing ministry. We go to places and sing this song and most of the audiences know it word-for-word. We were doing a cultural exchange where the traditional black music was being compared with our traditional mountain music. I sang lead on the first verse. Miss Austen played along on the piano and sang with that beautiful voice. Hearing my daddy’s words, written decades ago on a scrap of paper in a coal mine, through this incredible woman’s voice lifted my spirit along with everyone there. I felt that I was in communion with a higher power. There were no racial boundaries. There were no names and there were no faces. I was absolutely elated. I am certain everyone in the audience felt the same power I did. The spirit that swept over all of us was very real. I believe this was the most spiritually moving moment in my lifetime.
“Honestly, if I couldn’t sing I guess I would die. The music makes me who I am, and I thank God for that.”


From the Spine of the Virginias: Paul Broyles and Aaron Elizabeth Broyles, Rock Camp, WV

Paul Broyles is pastor of the Rock Camp Baptist Church. I watched as he baptized his daughter, Aaron Elizabeth, in nearby Indian Creek in the middle of winter when there were four inches of ice on the stream. A few days before the ceremony, he chipped a path into the stream, but it had frozen over in the meantime with another half-inch of new ice. So for the baptism, he started by inching his way into the flowing water chipping the ice again with a mattock. He returned to the bank where he took the hand of Aaron Elizabeth Broyles, and they waded into hip-deep water together. In front of perhaps 30 people, he spoke a prayer. He held one hand in front of her, clutching her hands, and the other on her back, and lowered her backwards until she was submerged into the icy water. Instantly, they scampered to the bank where they threw on dry jackets.
After a pot-luck lunch in the basement of the church, Paul told me about his life. He said he was born and raised in Ballard, in western Monroe County. He is fifty years old. “I graduated from Peterstown High School and went to work in the coal mines in Mullins, West Virginia. The next year I met a little girl from across the border near Narrows, Virginia. We dated for six months, and then we got married. I was 18 at the time and she was 19.
“A month after we were married, my brother asked me if I wanted to go fishing with him. I said being a newlywed I would stay with my wife. He and my father went without me. Within a couple of hours they had capsized their boat, and both of them had drowned. I could have easily been there and drowned with them. You will go crazy doing those what-if’s.
“Within 18 months I learned that I was going to be a daddy. The next thing I knew the coal miners went on strike. So I lost my job and my income. My mother moved away to live with a brother in Oklahoma. So I was the only family member around when our first son was born.
“The next thing I knew my wife was pregnant again, with Aaron Elizabeth. I made $8 or $9 per hour working in a coal mine. When I lost that job, I found another job bagging groceries for $2.85 per hour, so we were having a hard time.
“I got a better job at a rubber factory for a while and things began to improve. Then I got a job at Celanese in Giles County. Sometime later, Celanese laid me off. Soon my unemployment insurance ran out. I was desperate. I had a wife and two children. I knew that Celanese had a program where I could hang on to my seniority if I were in the military. I decided the Army was my best bet. I was 22 years old. Two weeks later I was at Fort Lewis in Texas. I went from having long hair to having this,” he said, pointing at his head, which he described as being a “Telly Savalas.”
“My drill sergeants and all my fellow soldiers made fun of me with my accent and being from West Virginia. There have always been a disproportionate number of people in the military from West Virginia. For one thing, there have been limited employment opportunities here. For another, we are patriotic, and we are not afraid to serve our country. True, joining was partly about doing my patriotic duty, but the bottom line was that I needed a job. The Army shipped me overseas to Germany for three years. After eight months my wife and kids moved over to live with me. I had a wonderful experience and matured a lot.
“After I served my time, I came back to the states and resumed my job with Celanese. I saved $3000 in the Army. I began to attend the Church of Christ on Wolf Creek, where my wife was from. But within a short period of time I reverted to my old ways, drinking and smoking a little pot.
“After a couple of years being back, I got saved. I had joined the church when I was young and had been baptized, but I think I did it just to fit in with my friends.
“Then I had an experience that changed my life. We used to do a lot of camping. There was a children’s home near where we camped, and they brought many of their orphans to the campground. We spent two weeks camping near them. I wanted to take some of them home with me. I had had a vasectomy, but I wanted more children. So I talked to my wife about adopting a foster child. We submitted our paperwork
“Our first foster child was a baby, just six months old. That was just the beginning. In the last 20 years, my wife and I have raised 52 foster children. At this point we have eight grandchildren. It is a miracle what God has done with us.”
He told me his job at the church was only part time. He continued to work in the Celanese factory. He looked at his watch. “I work shift work at the plant. Right now I am working a 3 p.m. until 11 p.m. shift. As soon as I leave here I am on my way to work.”
As he departed, he said, “I am a servant. I am a pastor, but I am a servant to the people. I am a servant to you. If we disagree, that is fine too. Now, if you ask me to do something to help you that is not in God’s will, then I cannot help you. My first master is God. My second master is my wife. My third master is my children and my foster children. My fourth master is my parishioners.
“I am proud of who I am. We are patriotic people. We stand by our convictions. We are not perfect. There is theft and corruption in this state. If people want to laugh at us that is fine, but there are many great people in West Virginia.”  
Aaron Elizabeth Broyles said, “I have always forged my own way in life. I am 27 years old. These have been 27 years of hard life. As Dad told you, I grew up in a large family with one biological brother and lots of foster siblings. When a child has to share her parents and her house and her toys with lots of other children, it teaches her not to be selfish. It was hard sometimes, but my parents continually reinforced to us that they were not trying to replace us. We always knew we had our place.
“Christmas at our house is still huge. We visit each other when we can and we have stayed a close-knit family. Some have married and now have babies who consider my parents to be their grandparents.”  
Aaron admitted she was a hard-headed person. Once she graduated from high school, Aaron got married and had two kids, but the marriage failed. Then she had a second unhappy marriage and divorce, along with serious physical problems. “My parents have always stood with me even when I have made mistakes. I have been really lucky.
“Before, I was living just for me. I got to the point where I had been through so many bad things and I had to ask so many people for help... I would go to my dad and ask him for help and finally it occurred to me that I was asking the wrong person. All along, I should have been asking God.
“To an outsider I’m sure my baptism appeared to be really crazy. That water was crazy freezing cold. But it was something to me... I just felt that I was going to be okay. Today was probably the coldest I have ever been, but I felt happy.”
Her eyes began to get moist. “I have been carrying a lot on my shoulders for a long time. I have been through a lot.”
She took a deep breath. “But not anymore. I am rejuvenated. Now I believe I can handle a lot more than I ever felt I was capable of. Today was the easy part. Now I have to commit my life to His work.
“I will be all right. I will go to heaven. I’m not afraid about that. Regardless of what I do for the rest of my life, everything will be all right.”