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Byrd watching

June 29, 2010

Featured Article, Video, Words


If image link to story and video is broken, try this one and look for ‘Hometown Remembers.’

Newspaper work can be filled with days on end of being chained to the desk, rewriting squibs, trying to ask just the right question telephonically to draw a gusher of a quote from a source on the other end of the county or the country. Then, escaping to Taylor Books to sit in the sun at an outdoor table toying with an espresso, pondering whether you should have gone into pulp and paper technology in college instead. Then, the longest-serving senator in U.S. history dies and you get to grab your trusty Canon G-11 and head south into West Virginia’s holler-land along with a reporter and a shutterbug to make a video about the backwoods town where the good senator checked in this world. That’s how I spent yesterday, the day after Sen. Robert C. Byrd died. Click on the image above to see the day’s work.

We poked around the nooks and crannies of Stotesbury, the former coal camp where Byrd grew up, and Sophia, where he worked in a butcher shop as a young man. That’s pronounced ‘SOAF-ya’ to all you media folk new to town, not ‘Sow-FEE-a,’ like that purty filmmaker. We kept bumping into TV news wagons and smartly coiffed female TV news readers (I think calling them ‘reporters’ is a bit much) wearing Sunday-go-to-meeting party dresses, stepping gingerly over rain-filled potholes in gravel parking lots.

Meanwhile, I was bleeding on my knees in the dust. Three lads in ascending sizes — medium, small and smaller — raced up to us on bicycles. They’d seen us hauling cameras, tripods and notebooks in the Stotesbury Community Church lot in Raleigh County, which is about as far out as you can get in West Virginia before you start heading back in. Moments later, two of them attended to the bicycle of the youngest. Then the oldest boy approached me: “Hey, sir, can you help us?” The chain had come off the tiniest of the bikes.

Since I had already taped my interview with Haley Bonds recollecting the time she cooked lunch for Byrd, I got down on my knees in the gravel and began wrestling with that oily chain and sprocket. I could relate.  I spent my summers as a boy on the back of a bike, from the newborn days of June to the butt-end of August. When the chain jumped the sprocket, that meant your horse was hobbled. Had to attend to that. After breakfast, I was out the door of our un-air conditioned house, blasting cool air into my face as I raced down the hills and dales of Winton Woods. Or I’d set off on urban commando missions in search of the latest Green Hornet or Justice League of America comic at the farthest drug store I could reasonably attempt to reach and return from before darkness set in or “Lost in Space” came on TV, whichever came first.

Click to enlarge

As my fingers turned black as coal dust from the chain, I kept hearing the boys chatter. “Yeah, that man was beat to death. I knowed him. D’you hear about that?” I had not heard about the local man beat to death. But speaking of coal dust, Haley had said in coal camp days you had to clean the coal dust off your porch. In the ’20s, when Byrd was the size of the bicycle boys, the quiet holler was a bustling coal camp, with a movie house, company store, community hall, a three-story foreman’s house and hundreds of coal miner houses, we are told. Now, you could hear the echo of the dog barking one holler over and the skree of red-tailed hawks rising on thermals in the cloud-piled blue sky above our heads.

I look down and see my fingers are not just oily black to the knuckles, but now ochre-red. I am bleeding,  cut by a sprocket tooth now dotted with my blood.  The boys are talking about Myspace. “What song are you gonna put on your Myspace?” one says to the other. How times have changed since Byrd left this holler, taking the road up out of Stotesbury to Sophia, one of the curviest roads I have ever driven in West Virginia, and I have driven some of the curviest. I count at least 9 to 10 S-curves, one after the other, like a monstrous anaconda curling down the mountainside. That’s the road Byrd took out of here to become the orotund esteemed Senator from West Virginia.

My how times have not changed at all. With a little help from the fingers of my colleague Larry the photographer, we finally get the chain back on. The boys re-mount their steeds. I had wanted to get video of them pushing off on their bikes from the church lot. Larry and I clean our hands with hand sanitizer and paper towels from my car, though my fingernails even now 24 hours later are still rimmed with grease like the hands of a car mechanic. “Ready?” I shout to the boys as they sit astride their bikes. Larry, too, has his big Nikon lens armed, up and ready to shoot. “Go!” I shout. And the three boys, gravel spitting, chains clinking, pedals pushing, spit off into the endless summer afternoon of a big sky June.

Peeling out | photo by lawrence pierce | click bigger

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3 Responses to “Byrd watching”

  1. Karin Says:

    What a beautifully written post. I actually went back and read it a second time, I enjoyed it that much.

    • admin Says:

      Thank you, Karin. It was a rich day, standing amid the summertime hills in the West Virginia way out.

  2. Pam Ross Says:

    It’s powerful! Made me want to laugh and cry. Simultaneously shoot myself in the head and kiss the ground for all the gifts I’ve been given, which are never enough. Open up to the world, bringing home a rainbow of ragtag colorful friends and close myself indoors, avoiding the knowledge of “how fragile we are” as Sting so eloquently expressed it.

    Your post and my response to it reinforces my belief that until we learn to move beyond the solitary road of service to self and reach an understanding that “everybody’s gotta serve somebody” (thanks Bob Dylan)that gap continues to broaden – kinda like the part in Donald Trumps hair