Can Almost See the Lights of Home ~
Charles Hardy III & Alessandro Portelli
CHAPTER 3: THE THIRD WORLD SUITE
Becky Ruth Brae:
And we would pray for the sick
We would lift up the lost and the needy
And we'd pray for the sick
Many years now have passed since my childhood
And we'd pray for the rain
And we still sing songs of praise
Chester Napier: Our closest neighbor was approximately a mile away.
And there wasn't many families in there, so. And everybody was just like
family, you know, the whole [inaudible]. We'd go pick beans all day. And
the rest of the neighbors, they would gather round the next day and help
us work them beans up. We'd can beans. We'd dry beans. And we'd pickle beans.
We didn't pickle beans like they do today in a quart jar. We put them in
a 55-gallon oak barrel. And corn. We pickled it the same way. Kraut, we
had a 35-gallon barrel for sauerkraut. So I guess we lived just about like
the pioneers did.
Portelli: Well, ever since I began work in Harlan I had this question. What does the title of the movie Harlan County, USA mean exactly? Because, I mean, it does not mean that all of USA is like Harlan County. To some people, and maybe in the intention of the authors, it's an oxymoron. It's a contradiction. How can such a place exist in the United States?
Chester: I guess we was just about like the Indians back in the
mountain where we was raised at.
Q: Well I had the microphone off, of course. So, Lowell
Wagner, and you live in Jackson, County.
Q: She was part Cherokee, wasn't she?
Portelli: As for being an Italian doing this, I got all sorts
of reactions. It's the first thing people told me as soon as I started
doing this Appalachian thing. For one thing, why are you studying Appalachia
and why aren't you studying Las Vegas, Hollywood? And my sense is that,
as you've said, Americans have been studying us and of course they do expect
us to study you, but not the way you study us. We're being studied, on
the one hand and on the other hand we should learn from America.
And immediately you see thatwell, I formulated this in an article once. It's called "Two Peripheries Talking to Each Other." And it's a strange definition of peripheries because Rome, after all, is not exactlyit's not Caput Munde, it's not the center of the world anymore. And on the other hand, these people may be marginal, but they're United States. So, it's contradictory there. And then [Shackelford on other channel] she went on and she said, "Also, you don't have anything to teach us." She says, "Now if you were a coal miner from Wales and you were telling us about mine safety, people will listen to you. But you're only listening to us. You're only trying to gather a little knowledge."
And so ultimately, you know, I've talked about fieldwork as an experiment in equality. And that's what it turned out to be. The reason I was able to have access to something was that there was no sense of me being superior. Basically because I was Italian. Of course, on the other hand, anybody who's from across the waters is a Russian or a Communist but that didn't come up much. I've never put it this way, but it's really been an experiment in equality because I don't have any power over them. On the other hand, they don't know that the Italian State Oil Conglomerate, ANI, owns coal mines in Kentucky and uses non-union labor and all sorts of terrible things.
CHAPTER 4: SURVIVAL
My friends up on Lost Creek are gone
I moved up to Jeff in '29
I worked hard from dawn 'til setting sun
Last half I didn't get much pay
Got a brand new pair of safety toe shoes
John L. Lewis is our best friend
Now I got that new pair of safety toe shoes
Annie Napier: Yes?
Portelli: And one of the reasons I got involved with this, this fieldwork at Harlan was also part of a bigger research and teaching project in Rome that we call the Appalachian Project, and we still have an exchange program with the University of Kentucky and the reason we did that was partly that we wanted a hometown. We wanted to be able to look at American culture from an internal point of view. To combine the facts. You know, the advantage that we're foreigners, we're outsiders, we get that perspective. But we also wanted to get it from the inside, and to be able to say, "Okay, what is this going to mean in Kentucky? This is going to mean in Harlan." And to me, "How's this going to affect Annie Napier and her family?"
Music Makers at Annie's: All that mud back in there. Never be
like it was. Hey Mike, we just escaped by the mercy of the Lord. Four foot
of water displaced there.
Annie: We tried to rob bumble bees for honey. Bumble bees don't
make honey. But boy do they have stingers. If you think about the way we
growed up, it was a miracle that we survived. When a baby's born, the first
thing is, when a baby's born, all odds in the world is against it, back
when I was growing up. The first thing, the houses are so cold, they're
lucky to survive. Most of them is born underweight because of nutrition.
But then after you get the little critters here, they start doctoring them
with these homemade remedies. First thing you do is make you a sugar tit.
You know what a sugar tit is?
Becky Ruth Brae:
. . . .
Darling, I don't need all those things you're working for
This house, oh this house, this old house
Chester Napier: When I was a teenager, Smith and Joneses creek, that
was the two of the roughest places around here. Well, I started carrying
a pistol when I was about 12 years old, and I've carried one ever since
and I still carry one.
Becky Ruth Brae's "Candles on the Table" (music)
FOURTH MOVEMENT: THE TALES OF WILLIAM GENT
Q: Okay, I think we got it going now. Okay, can you tell me your names and ages and the name of this place?
Portelli: And one thing about this project is each trip opens up new areas, and this whole conversation with William GentI'm going back to interview him again and his friends and the other veterans that he knows. That is a very hard level to crack, in fact. Because ultimately the people who are really, really excluded, really, really marginalized, are very hard to talk to, are very hard to reach.
Q: Have you been living around here all your lives more
Portelli: But the reason I got to William Gent was that Annie Napier drives a school bus to his community. So she met him. And she told me, "You got to interview this man." And she also told methe way he looks and the way heyou can be turned off, but he is really a very, very sensitive person. And so talk to him.
Bill: [Coughs] Smoking too much. When I get nervous or something
or real nervous I have one right after the other.
Portelli: The other thing about William Gent isand that has to do with the dialogue. The actual reason I wanted to talk to him was I wanted to hear about Vietnam. But I also knew from Annie that he wouldn't talk about this when his mother was there, because his mother just could not take those stories. They would make her very ill, very nervous. So halfway through the interview I asked him, "Were you ever in the Army?" He said, "No."
(Overlay: Bill) Q: Were you in the service at all?
Portelli: And I let it go at that. And then we kept talking and the interview was over and I left and we said goodbye and then I decided to go back. I was out of film or something, so I got some film and I decided to go back and take his picture because in that case, the visual was very important and I wanted his picture. So I went back and took the pictures. He walked me to the porch and he said, "I didn't tell you the truth before. I was in Vietnam." So I said, "Could we talk about it?" And he said, "Yes." And we went and sat in the car. And it was raining and thunder and things.
Q: You were talkingyou did go to Vietnam.
Portelli: And the reason that Annie wanted me to talk to him was for one thing he would feel good if somebody went and talked to him. And for another reason, he was a Vietnam veteran and he had stories about that. Interestingly, the first story he told was about a snake.
Bill: They sent us out, there's seven of us was sharp shooters?
They sent us out at to find bodies and disrupt their communications, take
out many of the officers that we could or whatever. Knock out everything.
But we had to avoid any of the enemy, avoid a fight with 'em till we got
to where we goin', our objective and knock it out and then we could on
the return, if we faced the enemy we could fight 'em or go on. And we,
a small patrol come by and we all had to find something to hide behind
out of the way so we wouldn't bump into 'em. And I thought it was a down
tree land that fell, and I laid down behind hit and I laid my rifle up
on across it. And I was laying there. I started wiggling a little bit,
moving, and I knowed there's a couple of guys on each side of me, behind
me, and I thought it might have been one of them, bumping, trying to get
my attention or something. And I looked around and that, it wasn't him,
he was eight foot away from me. I looked the other way, and I turned on
around and the other one was about the same distance. I turned back around,
big, old snake I was laying aside of, it turned its head around, it was
looking me right in the face. I couldn't afford to get up because the enemy
if it had a spied me, we would have had to fight and they ruin our mission.
And I thought about being' scared, that's the worst scare I ever got, that
Portelli: And then of course, there's this whole religious thing about snakes and snake handling. A snake is something that has to do with a confrontation with death. And I think this is why William Gent talks about the snake. The first story he tells, he' going to tell me about Vietnam, but the first thing he says was he's confronted with this huge snake. It's a powerful concentration of the spirit, of nature, of death, of danger, and also of something very, very familiar.
Prayer at Riverside
Riverside Church Music: "Travelling the Highway Home"
Hiram Day: (missing song lyrics)
5TH MOVEMENT: RECAPITULATION AND PROLOGUE
Song: "I Can Almost See the Lights"
Hardy: Okay. Let's talk about some of the tape that we're
going to be working with. You did interviews with a half dozen different
people. Can you tell me about the one or two moments that absolutely stand
out, that you had one of those moments of epiphany and you said, "This
I'm going to use."
(Hiram on right channel)
Hardy Is this "I Can Almost See the Lights of Home?" "I Can Almost See the of
And then, of course, the interview with Dee Dee, with Annie's granddaughter, which had this great line, "What do you study in school?" And she says, "Kentucky history and that Lincoln freed the slaves, and Daniel Boone," [Dee Dee on right channel] and she mixes them up. And then she has this incredible nursery rhyme. And it's "Rock Around the Clock," and you can see what happens to "Rock Around the Clock," but it gets drawn into that culture, that "Twelve O'clock Rock," it's midnight and midnight is ghosts. [Montage of Dee Dee reciting ghost rhyme] So you can really see what they're doing with mass culture over there. And, of course, you can see the obsession with death and ghosts. That was one moment.
(Fade up) Dee Dee:
CHAPTER 5: DEATH AND GHOSTS
Annie Napier: It's something, I'll tell you. You get into folklore and ghost stories. Bout everybody's got a ghost story. you know, They 're all over. Yeah., they are. But now some people can't never see nothing... Its weird but. I've seen things I wished I hadn't seen. . . . But, I reckon I am the only in the family that can do that. Except since Johnny died. Becky and Bob says he walks in the house. So, I don't know.
Hardy: So why your interest in death?
Annie: Yeah. Well, Chester's brother died last September with cancer, and then Liddie liked to cut her foot off in October, and she don't believe in a doctor, so she didn't even go have it stitched up. She liked to bled to death, and that laid her up for a couple of months. And then Johnny died. And then in May, Uncle Charles got killed in that car wreck, and one of my cousins died at the same time. It's justyou know. But there's a lot of good things happened, too.
Portelli: Well, I'll tell you why I'm interested in death though. The road I live on in Rome is called Via Casia, and it's been there for 2,500 years, because it's the first road that the Romans built when they fought and won their first major war with this town of Veyam, ten miles away from Rome. And as I swing into the road, just across the street there's a slab with the names of 14 people who were killed by the Nazis in June 1944. But before that, there's a small ribbon and a bunch of flowers always there just by the roadside. And that's where this Polish immigrant got killed by a car. And as you drive, well, there's a lot of these shrines that people have been creating all over the city, to make sense of people, especially of young people who have died in car wrecks or motorcycle accidents. And then you drive further on and the next little neighborhood is called Tomb Bar a Neroni, which means Nero's Tomb, that's a big Roman tomb. It's supposed to be where the Emperor Nero is buried. So death again. And you know, you walk along this road and you're confronted with the fact that death is there.
Becky Ruth Brae:
Now I often think about him
He can fly high,
Sometimes it gets hard, holding on
And he can fly
Annie: Now if you want to get some racket go down there and startle
them geese. And watch yourself you'll get bit.
Hardy: . . . and you're confronted by the fact that death is near.
Portelli: Well, I've been sheltered from death for a long time. I didn't have much to do with death. And I've always been troubled by how familiar with death my sons are. Teenage suicides, two in my son's school. Motorcycle accidents. Car accidents. Drugs.
So you go to Harlan and it's right there on the surface. Because it's very private on my street. All the shrines, they're all very private. Death is a very private experience and it's not talked about much. And over there it's all over the place and it's what the culture is about, on the one hand. On the other hand, they're fighting it. I mean, they're talking about survival. And I've always admired the way in which people fight back under impossible odds and survive. Especially in a country like America where you're not supposed to have impossible odds against you. You're supposed to be in pursuit of happiness. Well, you don't see much pursuit of happiness in Harlan County. But you see the persistence of life in the face of death and the context of death.
And ultimately, I guess that's another form of class struggle. That's one of the ways in which class struggle is taking place now.
SFX: Crickets fade out