"This book is righteous, self-righteous, exhilarating, and aggravating. By God, it's a raging, hilarious, and profane love song to the great American redneck. As a blue state man with a red state childhood, I have been waiting for this book for years. We ignore its message at our peril." —Sherman Alexie, author, Reservation Blues, on Deer Hunting with Jesus
Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoirby Joe Bageant
Set between 1950 and 1963, this coming-of-age memoir discusses one of America’s most taboo subjects: social class. Combining recollections, accounts, and analysis, this book leans on Maw, Pap, Ony Mae, and other members of this rambunctious Scots-Irish family to chronicle the often heartbreaking postwar journey of 22 million rural Americans into the
Set between 1950 and 1963, this coming-of-age memoir discusses one of America’s most taboo subjects: social class. Combining recollections, accounts, and analysis, this book leans on Maw, Pap, Ony Mae, and other members of this rambunctious Scots-Irish family to chronicle the often heartbreaking postwar journey of 22 million rural Americans into the cities, where they became the foundation of a permanent white underclass. Telling the stories of the gun-owning, uninsured, underemployed white tribes inhabiting America’s heartlands, this record offers an intimate look at what was lost in the orchestrated postwar shift from an agricultural to an urban consumer society.
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A Redneck Memoir
By Joe Bageant
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2010 Joe Bageant
All rights reserved.
A Panther in a Sycamore Tree
I'm going there to meet my loved ones,
To dwell with them and never roam
I'm only going over Jordan,
I'm only going over home.
— "Wayfaring Stranger", traditional Appalachian ballad
It happens perhaps once or twice every August: a deep West Virginia sundown drapes the farmhouses and ponds in red light, as if the heat absorbed during the dog days will erupt from the earth to set the fields afire. Distant cars raise dust clouds that settle on the backs of copperhead snakes lying in wait for the night's coolness and the hunt, and that red light flashes briefly in the eyes of old farmers setting out salt blocks for white-faced cattle.
It is during exactly such a dusk in 1951 that Uncle Nelson and I see the panther, in the meadow sycamore tree — a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I had ever seen a panther, nor expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson's face shows almost holy amazement. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear is a part of it; only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly pines in all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a moment — Uncle Nelson being deaf — then trot for home. By the time we reach my grandparents' house, twilight has settled.
"Maw," I blurt. "We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night."
My grandmother turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. "Never been a panther in these parts I know of," she says. But the set of Nelson's wide, dark semi- mongoloid face tells her this is a true thing. "Hear that, Pap?" she asks. "The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war for one of your own kin."
My grandfather frowns, says nothing, then raises his lanky frame from his chair, picks up the kitchen slops-bucket, and heads for the hog pen.
What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Well, if it was an omen, I figured Maw would surely know about it. She knew everything. She knew how to plant by the moon signs. And she knew the mark of the witch and that Miss Beddow down the road was for sure a witch (thus we kids hid under the porch when she passed along the road). She knew doctoring, too, and had saved Clarkie Unger's life that time he got his head run over by his daddy's tractor. Clarkie's father, Clarence, had wrapped his son's head in kerosene-soaked rags and Bag Balm cow-udder salve, and had prayed over Clarkie all night to no avail. Maw declared that she had never seen "such a mess of heathen doctoring", burned the rags, and set about healing the boy. Clarkie pulled through. A little lopsided in the face, but he pulled through. But for all her powers, she couldn't make Pap talk if he didn't want to.
"I swear, if talk was corn, that old man couldn't buy grain," Maw grumbled at Pap's non-response to the sign of the panther. And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war.
I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the settlers in our region, along with red wolves and the eastern woodland bison. Also that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But on that day in the dead center of the twentieth century, and in our world on Shanghai Road in Morgan County, West Virginia, along the drains of Sleepy Creek, phantom panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk-drinking snakes, and such other creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave a folk explanation for the greater unknown. For the English, Scots–Irish, and German souls strung out along the front hollers of the Blue Ridge Mountains, life was still animated on interior levels by the idea of such spirits. Things both tangible and impalpable lived alongside one another with equal importance — and the panther, an Appalachian folk sign of the devil's anvil, war, was an augury to be fulfilled. Indeed, the Korean War had started the year before.
Still, as much as some part of me still wants to find veracity in a sign of war divined by my long-dead grandmother, I cannot. The Bageant family has been birthing willing and flinty soldiers for every American war since General Edward Braddock's fatal 1755 frontier march on the French and Indians. Yet we were never touched by the conflict that scorched Korea from 1950 to 1953. No one we knew even served during those years, except for Pink Brannon, who was an army cook at the Newton D. Baker Veteran's Hospital in nearby Martinsburg. To us kids, that didn't count, since he didn't kill any Japs or Germans in Korea. (We children had no idea who America was fighting in "Kria", but World War II was still a fresh reality.)
So I am left with no meaning for the sign — just the awesome impression of it. The memory of it anchors an entire world I once knew.
MAW AND PAP WERE MARRIED IN 1917. He was twenty-three; she was seventeen. Pap had walked nine miles each way for over a month to court her, a fact which may have helped overcome her father's objections to their age difference, if he had any. The year they were married, Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated for a second term and Sigmund Freud published The Psychology of the Unconscious. But Woodrow Wilson had damned-little to do with life along Shanghai Road, and Maw and Pap went to their graves never hearing of Sigmund Freud. Their world was mostly just birth-to-death work, and pride in the fact that it was such. "My man is sure enough a worker," Maw observed. "By Jesus, he even got married in his work clothes. The preacher barely finished saying his do-yous before Pap was hitching up his jack leg Purcheron [a type of draft horse]. An hour later we topped this ridge, Pap hauled in the reins, turned, and said: 'Now, Virginia, I love you. And that's the last I want said about it.'"
"I never took it in a bad way," she said. "Pap can be a hard, stubborn man, but he's always as good as his word and a good provider. He promised I'd never be hungry, cold, or beat-on, and that he would build me a "home in glory". We had an orchard, peaches, pears, and Pippin apples mostly. We did good. The hillsides come full of corn, and we fed five or six Poland China hogs."
As a child, I can remember how the stove woodpile would grow almost half as big as the house every autumn. Pap was a good provider, alright. Nor was he as hard as he sometimes acted. In symbolization of their union, Pap planted two rose bushes that he fussed over and nurtured until his final days.
Neither of them were attractive people by any measure. Pap was gangly and heavy browed, not unlike Jean-Francois Millet's "Man With a Hoe", but in bib overalls. Maw was squat, fat, with grey eyes that slanted downward at the outside corners like those of a Greek tragedy mask.
But, as Maw said, "Looks don't mean shit." They meant even less in the world of farming. When Virginia Iris Gano and Harry Preston Bageant crested that ridge in their buggy and began their life together, they stood an excellent chance of making it. For starters, in that world the maths of life was easier, even if the work was harder. If you could show the bank or the seller of the land that you were healthy and sober, and knew how to farm, you pretty much had the loan (at least when it came to the non-arid eastern American uplands; the American West was a different matter). At 5 percent simple interest, Pap bought a 108-acre farm — house, barn, and all — for $400. (It was a cash-poor county, and still is. As recently as 1950 you could buy a 200-acre farm there for about $1,000.) On those terms, a subsistence farmer could pay off the farm in twenty years, even one with such poor soils as in these Southern uplands. But a subsistence farmer did not farm to sell crops, though he did that, too, when possible. Instead, he balanced an entire life with land and human productivity, family needs, money needs, along with his own and his family's skills in a labor economy, not a wealth economy. The idea was to require as little cash as possible, because there wasn't any to be had.
Nor was much needed. The farm was not a business. It was a farm. Pap and millions of farmers like him were never in the "agribusiness". They never participated in the modern "economy of scale" which comes down to exhausting as many resources as possible to make as much money as possible in the shortest time possible. If you'd talked to him about "producing commodities under contract to strict specifications", he wouldn't have recognized that as farming. "Goddamned jibber-jabber" is what he would have called it. And if a realtor had pressed him about the "speculative value" of his farmland as "agronomic leverage", I suspect the old 12-gauge shotgun might have come down off the rack. Land value was based upon what it could produce, plain and simple. These farms were not large, credit-based "operations" requiring annual loans for machinery, chemicals, and seed.
Sure, farmers along Shanghai Road and the Unger Store community bought things at the junction store on credit, to be paid for in the autumn. Not much, though. The store's present owners, descendants of the store's founders, say that an annual bill at the store would run to about ten dollars. One of them, Richard Merica, told me, "People bought things like salt and pepper. Only what they couldn't make for themselves, like shotgun shells or files." Once I commented to an old Unger Store native still living there that, "I suspect there wasn't more than $1,000 in the Unger Store community in the pre-war days."
"You're guessing way too high," he said. "Try maybe $400 or $500. But most of it stayed here, and went round and round."
So if Pap and the other subsistence farmers there spent eight bucks a year at the local crossroads store, it was eight bucks in a reciprocal exchange that made both their subsistence farming and the Unger Store possible as a business and as a community.
Moneyless as it was, Maw and Pap's lives were far more stable than one might think today. In fact, the lives of most small farmers outside the nasty cotton sharecropping system of deep-southern America were stable. Dramatic as the roller-coaster economics of the cities and the ups and downs caused by crop commodity speculators in Chicago were, American farm life remained straightforward for the majority. Most were not big Midwestern broad-acre farmers who could be destroyed by a two-cent change in the price of wheat. Wheat in Maw and Pap's time hovered at around fifty to fifty-five cents a bushel; corn, at forty-five; and oats at about fifty-six. Multiply the acreage by average bushels per acre for your piece of land, and you had a start at figuring out a realistic basis for your family's future. It was realistic enough that, after making allowances for bad years, plus an assessment of the man seeking the loan, the banks lent Pap the price of a farm. That assessment was not shallow.
Pap was expected to bring to the equation several dozen already-honed skills, such as the repair, sharpening, and use of tools (if you think that is simple, try laying down wheat with a scythe sometime); the ability to husband several types of animal stock; and experience and instinct about soils and terrain, likely weather, and broadcasting seed by hand. Eastern mountain subsistence farms needed little or no planting equipment because plots were too small and steep. What harvesting equipment such as reapers and threshers might be needed was usually owned by one man who made part of his living reaping and threshing for the rest of the community. Other skills included planting in cultivated ridges, managing a woodlot, and estimating hours of available sunlight for both plant growth and working. The subsistence farm wife's life required as much experience and skill on a different front of family provision.
That said, Pap wasn't a particularly good farmer. He wasn't a bad farmer, either. He was just an average farmer among millions of average farmers. The year my grandparents married, about 35 million Americans were successfully engaged in farming, mostly at a subsistence level. It's doubtful that they were all especially gifted, or dedicated or resourceful. Nevertheless, their kind of human-scale family farming proved successful for twelve generations because it was something more — a collective consciousness rooted in the land that pervaded four-fifths of North American history.
They farmed with the aid of some 14 million draft horses and God only knows how many mules. Pap wasn't much for mules; all the farming he had to do could easily be done with one horse. Without going into a treatise on horse farming, let me say that, around 1955 at the age of ten, I saw the last of Pap's work horses in use, a coal-black draft animal named "Nig" (short for nigger, of course). By then, Nig, who was Nig number three, if I remember correctly, was over twenty years old, and put out to pasture — a loose use of the term, given that he spent his time in the shade of the backyard grape arbor waiting to be hand-fed treats. But Nig still pulled a single tree-plow in a four-acre truck garden down in the bottom land — mostly melons, tomatoes, and sweet corn — while I sometimes rode atop barefoot holding onto the wooden hames at the collar. Pap walked behind, guiding the plow. "Gee Nig! Haw Nig! Step right ... Turn and baaack. Cluck-cluck." The rabbit dogs, Nellie and Buck, trotted alongside in the spring sun.
Though Pap owned a tractor by then — a beaten-up old Farmall with huge, cleated steel wheels, a man-killer prone to flipping over backward and grinding the driver bloodily under the cleats — he could still do all his cultivation walking behind Nig in the spring. In summer he'd scratch out the weeds with a horseless garden plow, or "push plow", and pick off bugs by hand, dropping them into a Maxwell House coffee can half-filled with kerosene. Pap hand-harvested most things, even large cornfields, using a corn cutter fashioned from an old Confederate sword. But it is that old horse and that old man with the long leather lines thrown up over his shoulders, the plow in his iron grip, and cutting such straight lines in the red clay and shale, that I remember most fondly. He made it look easy. Fifty years in the furrows will do that.
The last I saw of old Nig was a few years later on a sunfish-catching expedition to the farm pond. Red-winged black birds ch-ch-chrilled in the cattails. Nig was a skeleton trapped in wild grapevines deep in a sumac thicket. He stood upright, his bones encased in a brittle, sun-baked hide, with his nose touching the ground, as if he were grazing somewhere beyond the grave. And for the first time I understood something. I didn't quite know what, but I knew it had to do with the passing of all things, and that eternity does not care about that passing.
BY 1930, MAW WAS, IN HER WORDS, "PLUM DONE WITH having babies". This was the same year that the last of Maw's children, my aunt Ony Mae, was born, letting out her first squalls of mortal indignation upstairs in the bedroom with the balcony, where her siblings before her had done the same — Big Joe (my daddy), Ruth, Harry Jr, whom everyone called Toad, and Nelson, the oldest.
"Nelson come along in 1919, smack in the middle of canning season," Maw said. In 1919, there was a war on, with doughboys in the trenches of Europe, but canning is its own war between quickly ripening acres of vegetables and the slow process of hand canning. "Pap took on my canning and put up fifty quarts of green beans the night Nels come into the world. The bean baskets had already been on the porch almost two days and was getting limp. 'Cain't let 'em go to waste,' he said. Pap wasn't about to come upstairs among women and birthing and such!'" Pap's explanation was simple and brusque: "Canning was the next thing that needed doing, dammit."
Uncle Nelson, the product of all that moaning and hen-cackle upstairs, was born mentally deficient and 99 percent deaf. Consequently, he never left the farm, never married, nor learned to read and write. For a couple of weeks he did attend the free state school for the deaf in nearby Romney. But Pap and Maw pulled him out. There was no telling what wickedness lay in Romney, a town of perhaps a thousand, back then. At the same time they knew that, barring him losing a hand on the tractor's side-mounted buzz saw, the farm was a safe-enough place for Nelson. "So we just kept him home. He come up to size right here on the place, workin' like everybody else as soon as he got his growth."
"Working" is an understatement. My daddy recalled, "Nelson and I were, oh, about twelve or thirteen years old when we camped up on the Potomac River for a couple of months fellin' and hewin' green oak cross-ties. You know how heavy a green oak tie is? [240 pounds] Pap had to keep up the farm, so there we'd be up there on the river, and he'd come by once a week. A guy named Guy Spriggs hauled 'em over to the B&O rail yard at Martinsburg. But we never thought it was tough doings. We fished and hunted for food, and cooked on a fire. Once, Nelson killed a damned 10-point buck with an axe! The dogs had it cornered in a blackberry thicket. I sunk the meat in a lard bucket in the river, and Nelson and me ate on it for almost a week."
Excerpted from Rainbow Pie by Joe Bageant. Copyright © 2010 Joe Bageant. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Joe Bageant is a columnist and political commentator who writes for international newspapers and magazines and has appeared on U.S. national public radio and the BBC. He is the author of Deer Hunting with Jesus, which is being developed as a dramatic television series in America.
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