That's me on my very first bike. It was a black 5-speed Pirate bike with purple handlebars and I put about 50k miles on it. Give or take a few. That picture was taken in 1972 in a very, very small mining town in West Virginia where I lived for about eight years. When I say small, I mean about 400 people small. The town was built by the Coal Company, every house was owned by the Coal Company and their employees rented from the Coal Company. The Company store was still open, although the company paid real money then, instead of the Scrip they used to pay employees with. One store. One nurse, the Doctor would visit once a month. Nothing else.
The town was segregated. White people lived on one side of town and black people on the other. Only a few short years before that photo was taken, the black only school was closed and left to fall into ruin. It was haunted. For me, growing up, the racial divide was very much a real and palpable thing. For me, growing up, it didn't make any goddamn sense. My friends where black and white and that's all that mattered to me. It's a lesson I've carried with me ever since.
One night my Mother woke up screaming. I ran to my parents bedroom and my Father was standing on the floor with a broom in his hands. My Mother was on the bed hiding behind the covers. On the dresser by the door was the world's largest rat. I'll never forget that image as long as I live. Nor will I forget the effort it took for us to kill it.
You can't see it in the picture, but on the other side of the road and behind a line of houses is a gargantuan slag pile. This slag pile was on fire. The rocks burned. This fact was insanely awesome when you are a kid and incredibly worrisome when you are an adult. Behind the other side of our house was a railroad that took coal away from the mining tipple and across that black bridge you can see in the photo. My friends and I crushed many things under the wheels of the rail cars, coins, plastic soldiers, firecrackers, and even a few bullets. We knew nothing about safety. We were reckless adventures, playing with trouble, playing on fire, and exploring places we should never have gone.
In the Summer evenings my Mom would cook up a huge batch of popcorn and my friends would come over to hear her tell us stories. Most of the time we'd take a walk afterwards and cross that black bridge. Those moments are some of the best memories in my entire childhood. The worst memory of that time happened one Summer afternoon. By this time my Father had stopped working in the town's coal mine and had taken another mining job further away. Every night he'd come home exhausted and as black as night. But this day he came home early. I can still picture his orange Chevy pickup screeching to a stop behind the fence and watching him fall out onto the ground. I can still remember my friends and I running as fast as we could to the nurse's house. The rest is all flashing lights and noise. It turned out to be nothing more than a scare. But I will never forget it.
My Father is my hero. He worked in the mines for over 40 years. We endured periods of no work and periods of boom. Strikes. Wild-Cat strikes. Picket lines. My Father often had to cross lines and endure threats, fires, thrown bottles and more. He had shots fired at him a few times. There were times growing up when we'd have the same meal night after night. There were times when, looking back now, I know that we were extremely poor. Dirt poor. But we never knew it. My parents managed. My Father never gave up and he worked his way up the ladder and always provided more than enough for us.
We eventually moved out of that town when I was eight years old. We were never "rich" when it came to money. But I always felt rich in other ways. My parents couldn't afford to send me to college when it was time for me to go. I had a sports scholarship but lost it when I hurt my knee in senior year. I excelled at baseball and even tried out for several major league teams, but nothing came of it. My other option was the military, a place probably more than half of the boys in my graduating class went after graduation. But the good news continued and my eye-sight failed me. And I grew too tall to fly fighter jets. I had never taken an art class before, but I had always enjoyed drawing. I had a comic strip in the school paper and had won a few art contests here and there. The art teacher allowed me to take all the required art classes in my senior year so I could qualify for art school.
We all come from somewhere. Our histories forge us. Mine has. Mine taught me some important lessons and made me the person I am today. I was lucky to have a great family and great parents who loved me. Not everyone is that lucky. We never had money. But we never needed it. My Father always provided and I am extremely proud of him. My Mother taught me to laugh and to tell stories. I get my work ethic and my sense of humor from my parents.
My origins are humble. And important. As I'm sure yours are as well. We are all people. I think it is important to remember and be reminded of that fact from time to time. I don't have any big lesson to impart. This is only a story. A small part of who I am and where I come from.
Take from it what you will.