April 11, 2019

Fat city?

I love the city of Huntington. I'm no doubt biased. It's my county seat and it was always the city we could go to when we need a break from our small town. It's home of Marshall, my alma mater twice over.

It's been hit by tidal wave after tidal wave. Major deindustrialization, bad health, ground zero for opioid overdoses. But it keeps fighting back.

Usually any national attention it gets has to do with the opioid epidemic. This would be a case in point. Things are still bad there, but the fact that the city has made major progress in reducing overdoses doesn't always get the same level of attention.

I was pleasantly surprised to see this Washington Post story about how Huntington turned the corner from being America's most obese city. According to the CDC, the rate dropped by 13 percentage points over the last decade.

Some may remember when Jamie Oliver did a Food Revolution TV series about Huntington, with plenty of made up drama, but the heroes and heroines of this story are local.

And the city keeps plugging away.

April 08, 2019

Breece Pancake's last day

Breece Pancake, 1952-1979. For my money West Virginia's greatest writer

Forty years ago on this date, I showed up at the Milton Library to perform my duties as a janitor, a job for which I showed no great talent and little diligence. It was Palm Sunday.

I was surprised to see Toney Reese, the main librarian and one of the greatest people I've ever known, show up. She was visibly upset.

When I asked, she told me that Breece Pancake, son of my co-worker Helen, had died of a gunshot wound in an apparent suicide. They had been close.

I was stunned. I knew that the ripple effects of that day would last for years, but I had no idea just how strong they would be.

I can't say I knew him. We'd met a time or two. He was about my brother's age. Both of our fathers were WWII combat veterans who had a little trouble with their homecomings. I knew Helen as a kid when she worked at the local Island Creek store.

Like many people from Milton who were paying attention, I was excited and maybe a little  jealous to learn that he'd  had a couple short stories published by The Atlantic.

At the time and for several years to come, Helen and I worked together at the library each Tuesday evening and every other Saturday. I had no idea what to say or do when I saw her again.

Needless to say, she was traumatized. But over the next several years that we worked together, she healed after a fashion. Partly I think this was due to her determination to see that a book of his stories would be published. "The day they put him in the ground," she told me, "I swore I'd see his book published."

The odds were against it. Books of short stories by new and unknown writers don't often catch on, even with living writers to promote them. It was a great experience to see it come together. Every time I saw Helen, she'd share the latest letters from the dozens of people who helped the book come together and show the latest stories that were posthumously published.

It finally came out in 1983 as The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake under the Atlantic Little Brown imprint. The next year a paperback edition came out. Since then, the book has never been out of print and has been translated into several languages.

Helen and I became very close in those years, but I held off reading the book for several months. Finally I sat down one evening and cracked it open. I wound up reading it straight through. The stories were hard as nails through the wrists. I had the same feeling of awe that I'd had after reading other classics, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare.

Many of the stories were set in and around our town, thinly disguised as Rock Camp, with the others scattered around the state. Breece wrote about those lost and left behind, a number which would only grow over the next several decades. And is still growing today.

He saw it coming.

The overall impression reminded me of a line by Bob Dylan:

"everyone of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin' coal
 Pourin' off of every page
Like it was written in my soul
From me to you"
Tangled up in blue indeed.