From the moment you cross the state line, you see and feel the difference.
As we drive from Virginia into McDowell County, West Virginia, the sun is rising and the early morning frost glistens on the far hills across the valley. There is a bracing crispness in the air and the abundant rivers and streams we pass offer up soothing sounds of rushing waters. Even in the dead of winter, the thousands of acres of leafless trees create a serenity and beauty found in few places.
But further into the county, toward our destination of the town of War, it becomes clear that this lush topography is hiding an underbelly of unbelievable poverty. The county line seems to have served as an invisible wall between rich and poor, between hope and despair. Suddenly, the houses sport tarped roofs and broken windows, the yards become cluttered with abandoned cars on blocks, and children, covered in coal dust, play amid the stagnant debris. Every mile traveled reveals more decay: buildings burned to the ground due to unsafe coal stoves, trailers rotting in high grass, sheds collapsed in heaps of wooded rubble.
Passing through Big Creek, small grocery stores occupying old, unpainted houses sport advertisements for chewing tobacco on their sides. Further down, churches of every type and denomination compete with homes for space along the road. Some have the traditional edifices with steeples; others are in dirty broken down buildings with hand painted signs on the walls inviting people to find salvation. The oft-told local joke, we later discover, is that there is a church for every five people in the area. It appears less a punchline and more a reality. In the middle of it all, an old garage, fighting for attention like a tawdry sinner, has been turned into a bluegrass music bar. On weekend nights, residents happily 'flat foot' dance the night away.
As we turn off the main road and drive up into the hallows on one lane - sometimes even dirt - roads toward the hills, the poverty becomes even more pronounced. At times you wonder if you have somehow landed in a Third World country. Even for the seasoned, to see such sights in America is hard to comprehend. It is as though you have come across a lost tribe of people that has been totally forgotten by their country.
Yet, amid this misery and hopelessness, one finds remarkable kindness. Folks here believe helping a neighbor in need is nothing special - indeed, it is a way of life. Even the poor help the poorer. And by embracing the age-old virtue of loving thy fellow man, many of these tenacious residents find redemption for themselves. The amazing Marsha Timpson is one of those people.
We are to meet Marsha at The War Café - one of only two places to eat in this small hamlet of less than 800 people. War, West Virginia is a shadow of its former self from the days when "King Coal" ruled the area. Back then, it was a bustling, thriving city of thousands with movie theaters, restaurants, car dealers, department stores and a vibrant business center. Driving up the main drag today, the theaters are gone, the dining is limited, the dealerships are closed, the department stores are boarded, and the last grocery store was in the process of closing that weekend. The street is filled with pot holes and a grimy film of coal dust covers most everything.
The War Café occupies a little storefront near the center of what remains of the town. As we enter, we are greeted by an elderly diminutive ball of fire with big hair and non-stop charisma named Dottie. She leads us past the stools and counter in the front section to the side room where we find our select group of McDowell County citizens sitting at the large table. Franki Rutherford, small, bespectacled and powerful in presence who is the head of the Carlotta Community Center - the organization we have heard so much about - is first to stand. As she embraces us, we mention how beautiful the hills are surrounding the town. Franki smiles at the compliment. "These hills with the trees, well, it's hard to explain," she says. "They enrich my soul everyday." Danny Mitchell, the County Sheriff, gets up and strongly shakes our hands. He is young, handsome and perfectly and expensively dressed. Joining in the greetings is the graying and heavy-set Mayor, __________, a retired college professor. Then, finally, we meet Marsha Timpson.
Marsha Timpson is 52 years old but looks at least ten years younger. A somewhat round woman - she prefers to call herself 'fluffy' - she has the face of an angel and a smile that never seems to disappear. Her laugh disarms immediately as she gives a huge welcoming bear hug and the first hint of her charming heavy hill accent. She is the classic universal 'earth mother' and at first, there is no hint of the painful and traumatic journey that created such a spirit. Wearing one of her best lose fitting print dresses that highlights her pale but beautiful skin, she urges us to sit down. Immediately we begin to hear a collective home-spun précis of the struggle against poverty in the remote region.
The Mayor is proud of expanding one of the few sewer lines in town, while the Sheriff discusses the battle against massive drug addiction to Oxycontin in the hills. Franki speaks of the programs at the Center where Marsha works for her. All profess an unshakable hope and belief that if people on the outside just cared a little bit more, lives could be changed for the better in War. Franki, perhaps, says it best: "I think not only do people outside this community not care about us, but they want us to disappear." Then she thinks for a moment. "It's not that they just don't care," she continues, clarifying, "if they didn't care, we could probably deal with that. But we are in folks' way."
As we sit listening to the tales, we can not help but notice the calendar on the wall of the café. At first it seems the classic picture calendar put out by local businesses. But on closer inspection, it becomes clear that this particular yellowed page has not been turned in over forty years. The month reads November, the year 1963, and your eye immediately settles on the historic, fateful day -- the 22nd. When the date is pointed out, the table begins talking about the Kennedys in reverential tones, the older ones telling in vivid detail how President Kennedy had once visited the area. Franki reminisces, "They gave us hope linked with the ability to change things. The Kennedys really affected this community, I mean they cared. They were young and energetic and they truly cared about the people. And they had ways to make things better for us." It was clear that, for them, a great measure of that hope had died along with the young assassinated President.
Bidding goodbye to the group at the café, we follow Marsha's car up into Warrior Mines Hallow. The road runs alongside a winding creek past dozens of small bungalows that used to serve as company housing for the coal companies. A palpable haze caused by a combination of the cold winter air and soot from the coal burning stoves hangs low throughout the hallow. Many of the occupants, we knew, only owned the home itself; six inches below the surface was all owned by the coal or railroad companies. Rarely did anyone own the land beneath their own home.
As the road banks, we suddenly turn down into a cinder driveway and park in the yard. We walk up to a small cement back porch filled with pots waiting for Spring so flowers can be planted in them. Once inside the small wood-framed house, it is clear Marsha has lovingly created a real home. It is a house redolent with history and pictures of family, especially her three children - Brandi (29), Kathy (19) and her son Tyler (15) - cover the walls. Bursting with motherly pride, she begins by sharing a quick synopsis of the journeys of each of her children. The girls are no longer in residence, but Tyler, a poised young man, still lives at home. The youngest Timpson has Aspersers Symptom and an obsessive compulsive disorder that, regrettably, has made him a frequent target of bullies at Big Creek High. Challenges, it seem, presented themselves everywhere in Marsha's life. Undaunted and clearly determined, this remarkable, resilient woman sits with us in her living room and begins a full recounting of her personal path.
Marsha grew up in Warrior Mines, her family living in the same home for over 75 years. Her parents raised six children there - four daughters and two brothers - and coal is deeply ingrained into the family history. Her grandfather, father and brothers were all United Mine Workers. Grandfather Farley had the walls of the mine cave-in on him, leaving his leg disabled for life. A brother survived two separate cave-ins, but had to have surgery on his back; he also lost the ends of some of his fingers. Tradition taught them to honor the work ethic, brutal though it may be, and to find their spiritual solace in being active Freewill Baptists.
From the very beginning, Marsha faced an uphill battle. Although better off than most due to a father who held a long-paying job in the coal mines, the family found it a constant struggle to make ends meet. While it was ingrained in the children that education would be the only passage out, the expense was prohibitive. They would often discuss which of the six would attempt to go to college. Marsha vividly remembers, "It was just - every family had to do it - we would try to think of the best one to go because most them figured only one child could go to college. The boys were taken care of - they were going to be coal miners. It was from the girls that the one would come from. And Dad would look at me and he'd say, "you try to get married as soon as you can!" She throws her head back in laughter with the recollection.
But being the good girl that she was, that is exactly what Marsha did. When she was 17, she met 22 year-old Freddy Wright from Cucumber Hallow. A welder by trade, Freddy, like most everyone else in rural West Virginia, worked in the mines. He was handsome, short, and had a head of dark wavy hair that offset his vivid blue eyes. Marsha's family loved his good manners and very consistent respect for his elders. But Freddy was a bit of a rebel, having been one of the few boys who had lived on the 'outside' of the valley and then returned. That made Freddy mysterious and adventurous to Marsha and she loved that 'wild side' of him. He always wore a mischievous smile which Marsha confesses, "Drove me crazy."
Their first home was a 10'x 40' trailer in Coal Creek, South Carolina where they moved right after they married. They stayed in South Carolina until 1973 when they returned to his family homestead in Cucumber Hallow - a tiny hodgepodge of a house that had been built in spurts. In the kitchen, one end was four feet high and the other end was seven feet high. The refrigerator blocked the only window. The ringer washer was outdoors and wet clothes had to be put through the hand ringer and back again before hanging out to dry. "We never fixed it up or attempted to repair the roof or sides much," Marsha explains, "because even though Freddy was born into this house, the coal companies could always evict you for the land underneath. Which is what they eventually did."
Freddy had a problem with alcohol, which, given his family history, was not surprising. He was one of 23 children and to make ends meet, his coal mining father made moonshine on the side. At the age of nine, Freddy starting drinking the home made brew. Six months into the marriage, Freddy began to verbally and physically abuse his wife when he was drunk. As the drinking increased, so did the abuse. Not only was Marsha emotionally battered, but the physical damage led to a dislocated knee and even a miscarriage.
Their daughter, Brandi, was the one bright spot in their marriage. But before long, even she was not immune to Freddy's darkening mood swings. One particularly hot summer night in August, Freddy went on an especially long drinking binge. Marsha and he were in constant battles not only about his drinking, but their living conditions which continued to deteriorate as his alcoholism got worse. That sweltering night, Marsha once again adamantly refused to give him money for more liquor. Livid, he erupted. In the middle of the rage, seven year-old Brandi accidentally spilled a glass of ice tea in the living room. The innocent mishap was a like a match to leaking gas.
For the first time, Freddy turned on his daughter and started chasing a screaming and frightened Brandi around the house. Marsha grabbed the child, rushed her into a small bedroom and pushed a chest of drawers against the door as a makeshift barricade. Freddy, now completely out of control, ran to grab an axe and started chopping through the door. Marsha quickly removed a fan from a window and pushed Brandi out into the yard, following her in a free-fall to the ground below. Ever the quick thinker, she put the fan back in the window, hoping that her crazed husband would figure they had hid somewhere in the room. That, perhaps, would give her more time to hide Brandi and herself outdoors.
Desperate, they ran to a plastic swimming pool raised about three feet off the ground and climbed in the water, stretching a moldy canvas tarp over themselves. Huddled terrified in the stagnant water, they listened as Freddy's continued screaming and incessant chopping in the house echoed throughout the neighborhood. The noise eventually died down and then mother and daughter heard the family truck start up. When she was certain her husband had gone - undoubtedly in search of more liquor - Marsha cautiously led her daughter from the sanctuary of the pool. Back inside the house, she got dry clothes for both of them. Before they could even breathe, they heard the truck approaching the house. Marsha ushered her newly dried daughter out to the yard, where, this time, they hid in an old, rusted truck on cinder blocks behind the house. After what seemed like hours, Marsha crept back into the house to find her inebriated husband passed out on the floor. Grabbing the truck keys, she sprinted to the yard, collected a whimpering Brandi and fled to her sister's home.