By David Faulk
There is a story that has circulated my hometown like an intractable conspiracy theory for as long as I can remember. In the nineteenth century, so the story goes, the town elders were given a choice between hosting West Virginia’s state penitentiary, or a soon-to-be-announced land grant university. These practical men, given the choice between free prison labor and a standing army of fuzzy-minded professors, leapt at the former. One is tempted to throw in a “the rest is history” here, but such historical determinism has its faults. There have since been too many possibilities at redemption for that choice to have dictated a destiny. And besides, the narrative is awfully clean cut, suspiciously so, even for that historical cliché. No, what makes the story so compelling is not its explanatory simplicity, or even whether it passes the smell test of truth, but rather that choosing a prison over a university is just the sort of thing that people where I come from would do.
Moundsville, West Virginia, lies on the east bank of the Ohio River, just a short barge and tugboat ride downstream from Pittsburgh. We drink the Steel City’s waste water and brownfield runoff, in fact. This forgotten outpost of boarded-up smelters and steel mills lies just beyond the Pittsburgh Metropolitan Statistical Area per “the Feds,” as we liked to call them while playing Cowboys and Indians. Even at a tender age, we usually identified with the Indians. It does not matter much to us where we technically belong. Reality prevails here. Of the variety of industrial manufacturers that once lined the river before the economic apocalypse of the early 1980s, all that remain are the anus end of some coal mines, paint plants and a few chemical manufacturers, which yield products similar to those which caused a disaster in Bhopal, India.
To be working-class in Moundsville was to be truly on the bottom of the slag heap of society. Shunned by Pittsburghers and Clevelanders for its southerness, and by the rest of West Virginia for its sundry north-of-the-Mason-Dixon Catholicisms (mostly Italians and Eastern Europeans, with an occasional Greek thrown in), the northern panhandle of West Virginia can even shun itself. This was most recently witnessed when country music star and favorite son of Glen Dale (just north of Moundsville) Brad Paisley went on Jay Leno to defend his song “Accidental Racist,” which is about how it has become unacceptable to wear a Confederate flag t-shirt. For the record, West Virginia entered the Union as a free state in 1863 and fought on the blue side. But most locals don’t know that. Whenever this neurotic northern sliver of West Virginia is missing from CNN’s crude election-night maps, moral outrage follows. Residents are flummoxed by assertions that this place does not in fact exist.
My ancestors were Asturian Spanish, stocky little human espresso machines who came to West Virginia from the silver mining regions of the old country during the 1920s. Their expertise in mining and smelting was in great demand. They lived in Spanish Row’s squat matchbox-like houses, in a little bastion of Papism and domestic violence located down the street from the constant clink-hum of the Pepsi bottling plant. The matchbox simile is not imprecise. Inside these matchbox houses were little hot-headed match people who threatened to explode with self-destructive violence if rubbed the wrong way.
Pepsi was the official non-alcoholic drink of Spanish Row, the bottling plant having been owned by one of its enterprising residents. The Asturians in my family shrub were too proud to sign anti-anarchist and communist statements at Ellis Island, and subsequently redirected to Cuba to mellow out a bit. They made it through Ellis Island in a more amenable state of mind a few babies later. Lured by posters offering mining work in West Virginia, they wound their way through the Alleghenies and northern Appalachians, carrying their stubborn erect postures into the heart of darkness. Photos show them in tight cruel shoes and starched collars, staring uncomfortably into the flash of the camera. They were known to abuse cats.
The Asturianos, too proud to refer to themselves as Spaniards, did not take well to the local customs, I am told, or rather the locals did not take well to them. Holed up at the windowless Peso Club down the street from Spanish Row, the Asturianos organized labor after being fired as prison guards for agitation. It was at the Peso that I had my first Pepsi out of a frosty mug pulled from a horizontal deep-freezer by a thin guy attired in an impeccable white undershirt. The Peso was cold, winter cold, like the frosty mug, the coldest place I had ever been during the summer. The Asturianos back in Spain, the stay-at-home Monteses and Zapicos, became legendary anti-fascist fighters in the 1930s. Some lived on in exile in Paris as late as the 1990s. I tell their story knowing I am attempting to make identity lemonade out of identity lemons.
From the employment of my grandfather to my junior high school education, the penal colony on Jefferson Avenue, the State Pen, played a greater role in my life than anyone will ever know. My junior high school was overrun by the progeny of inmates from all over the state seeking proximity to dad’s weekend visitation. These violent miscreants, challenged in basic hygiene, were promptly labeled “dirt balls” and considered genetically predisposed to all sorts of degenerate acts in the restrooms and locker rooms. They played a central role in our needy psyche: They were people we could look down on.
When I first heard the term “Rust Belt” during my last year of junior high, the rust had barely formed on Moundsville. I immediately assumed this rust belt was a reference to the local repurposing of a fashion accessory as a disciplinary device, a tactic that increased in response to the stresses of rapid deindustrialization. Childhood infractions small and large were reacted to all the same. The belt was released by grimy mill hands, swung with cracking precision, and re-sheathed between frayed belt loops, all in a matter of seconds. The Ohio Valley in the early 1980s was marked by patterns: For every mill closure, bankers closed in on the houses. Women dried their eyes with pink Kleenexes, and the belts came off. Then families moved away or fell apart.
I have always wondered whether Moundsville suffers under a curse. The mammoth stone-walled penitentiary we called the “butt hut,” was ruled unfit for even prisoner habitation. It was repurposed as a federally-funded SWAT team training facility, until it was discovered that the mock explosions were releasing unsafe levels of asbestos. The corrections facility moved to the outskirts of town, in the foothills off a road called Fork Ridge.
Across the street from the abandoned butt hut, the city’s namesake, the 69-foot-tall Grave Creek Mound stands like a big green earthen tit. The Adena mound-building civilization populated this region between 1000 and 200 B.C., or “before the curse” as we said in school. Our mound is thought to have been built near the end of this period. Early Moundsvillean, amateur archaeologist, and tomb raider Delf Norona dug exploratory shafts into the mound in 1838 and exhumed bodies. Thus we speculate a curse not unlike that of Chief Cornstalk’s curse in downstream Point Pleasant, West Virginia, which local lore claims as the backstory behind The Mothman Prophecies.
There is a distinct possibility that I have personally contributed to Moundsville’s curse. Of many nights spent drinking cheap regional beer on the peak of this venerable structure, one evening stands out in particular.
The late summer evening was cool, but tired, with the feel that it was finishing off a muggy day. The chill blew off the river as I met up with Chet and Greg at the shopping plaza. We stood around smoking cigarettes, bored and feeling taller than we were. The idea came to Chet to buy a case of beer, but as none of us had ever drunk any, we weren’t sure just how one went about it. Our back was to the drink mart. We talked ourselves into the notion that this purchase should be like any other. We pooled our discretionary income. It came to $8.50, just enough for two six packs of Rolling Rock and some beef jerky or a case of Iron City Light. We chose the latter. Nobody was hungry.
Chet, an honor student like the rest of us, was a dreamer, unable to focus on anything. His drunken old man railed at him every morning until Chet agreed to pull the lawn mower from the shed in the alleyway and canvass the neighborhood for work. He found plenty. The first half of the summer went by rather uneventfully, until one day Chet was distracted by some flight of fancy and allowed the mower to roll backwards over one foot. With a dull thud and the sound of cracking bone, the mower stalled. A large toe, covered in wet grass clippings, landed on the sidewalk. Without that toe, Chet walked with a slight limp. It didn’t seem to bother him.
We made our way past signs for the impressive-sounding Grave Creek Mound Archeological Complex. One of us suggested drinking right there. We turned in unison and looked up at the mound, knowing full well that the only place worth drinking on this property was at the heights. Greg and I hoisted our sacramental offerings over the green chain-link fence to Chet who waited on the other side. We carried the beer up the spiraling stone stairwell to the statue at the mound’s peak. The sun was setting behind the Com-Ed coal-fired power plant across the river, rendering the horizontally-blown white smoke in hues of red and orange. Horizontal exhaust meant clear days ahead, the smoke stack serving as a sort of primitive Weather Channel. Two blinking jets on the way to somewhere very different from Moundsville left puffy contrails in the sky. The red sunset bounced off the muddy water below, giving the image of a river on fire.
[blocktext align=”left”]Horizontal exhaust meant clear days ahead, the smoke stack serving as a primitive Weather Channel.[/blocktext]We plopped down on a stone wall and just stared at each other silently before Chet popped open the first beer. Greg and I followed suit and all three of us grimaced at the taste. The cold Iron City Light stung with an unfamiliar bitterness, something like a blend of tonic water and gasoline.
From the peak of the mound we had a clear view over the penitentiary walls. What I had thought was one gargantuan building on my youth was actually a massive four-story wall, as thick as a car is wide. Inside was a complex of buildings, an open-air hell. It was a mysterious place occupied by murderers and child rapists, eerie long before it was closed down and turned into a place for freak tours and Halloween haunts. Criminal silhouettes danced on frosted window panes.
Stories abounded about the pen. Like the guy who was burned alive by gasoline in his cell during a riot, or the warden with a German name and knee-high leather boots who would challenge prisoners to fights after removing his badge.
Chet turned around and commented on the glow of the sunset. We turned around with him, and then we saw it. A truck jacked up to a ridiculous height bounced down the street, pitching and yawing with each seam in the road surface. Oversized exhaust pipes jutted vertically out of the truck’s bed. The driver slouched in the seat, with his right hand low on the steering wheel near his dick and his left arm leaning on the door. His female passenger sat at his side, snuggled close on the bench seat, a la mode at that time. As the truck rounded a corner, the driver leaned his head out of the window and released a dark stream of chewing-tobacco juice in a manner only made possible by dental peculiarities.
“High-altitude Hillbilly,” Greg blurted out. The spitting driver was no doubt one of the ridge-running locals who found his identity in southern West Virginia, while Chet was the type who looked northward along the industrial riverfront for his. On this mound we straddled the fault line of two cultures.
“A good case for forced sterilization,” said Greg ruefully. Greg was back on his forced sterilization soapbox again, a theme he had beaten to death that summer. Greg had thoroughly absorbed—to its dangerous conclusion—the elitist mindset of the gifted program’s lead teacher, who flaunted a doctorate in education from the state university that Moundsville passed up.
“Actually, if you want to sterilize people, you could start here,” insisted Greg, pointing epiphanically toward the penitentiary, which by now was lit up brighter than a Steelers game on Monday Night Football. A guard was visible in a Gothic-style turret, looking around with binoculars during what must have been a shift change. The guard turned and looked in our direction. I thought about my grandfather, who died decades before my birth, climbing that same guard tower and perusing the grounds with his binoculars. The houses on the hills surrounding the town stared darkly like pillboxes.
“You can’t just sterilize people,” said Chet. “They are still people.”
Chet and Greg’s friendship had been strained since The Betrayal, when Greg chose to play on the laughingstock football team rather than play trumpet in the state-champion marching band. It was an unexpected move, given Greg’s complete lack of sports experience and his three years in the junior high band. He wasn’t athletic, he was just big. He would play defense.
The acrimony between the band and the football team was the most talked-about conflict in the town, after the inevitable union-management conflicts. The band made the team seem like an appendage of a music show. It was safe to say that most spectators turned out to watch the band, and not the football games already given up for lost. The coach and band director were no longer on speaking terms. The band entered the field at the same time as the team, which more than once led to a smashed tuba or broken bass drum. It seemed vaguely revolutionary at the time to see the football team as the side act surrounding the halftime music show. Later in life, when I had a greater appreciation for sports and a suspicion of military-influenced music, I came to see this was an omen that there was something wrong in our universe. Greg took a loud slurp from his beer and sat silently.
“What about Fred?” I asked. Fred was the elderly wash boy at the local Ford dealership. He had done some hard time for chopping up his wife and her lover with an axe. He had caught them in the act while returning home early one day. Fred, one of the few black men in town, became a sensation after his release, treated as a hero and given a $50 a day sinecure at the dealership. He mostly sat leaning against the doorjamb and picked his teeth with a Bic pen.
“Yeah, we can’t sterilize Fred,” said Chet. Greg had to concede the point. “Besides,” added Chet, pointing to the penitentiary, “most of the people in there are in for life. They can’t replicate their DNA anyway. You can’t knock up a butt.” Chet was proud of his use of the word “replicate.”
Greg sat silently, unable to find a response. He took another slow slurp at his Iron City before smashing the can and throwing down the side of the mound.
“Well, I’m just saying that it makes sense in theory,” said Greg. “I’ll admit that there are problems in practice … like Fred. That has to be sorted out. ”
Greg had been reading Herodotus. He had found a dusty copy of the Greek historian’s writings in a local library. Greg told us the story of a leader who had been toppled by an enemy force. The leader was forced to watch a procession of his family being marched off to death, but he only cried when he saw one of his servants in the procession. We sat for a while and debated why that could be, concluding that stories are more powerful when they lack clear explanations.
I stood thinking about the earthen protuberance on which we stood, thinking about all that has transpired since this dirt was piled upon bones upon dirt. Rome went on a conquering binge. Christ was crucified. The Jews were driven from Jerusalem. The Sassanid Empire rose in Iran, and Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The Vandals sacked Rome and China was reunified under the Sui Dynasty, Muhammad died, Arabs seized Constantinople, Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. the Tale of Genji was written, the Crusades were crusaded and Saladin reconquered Jerusalem. Genghis Khan croaked. The Hundred Years War began and ended in about a hundred years. The Bible was translated into God’s language of English, and America was “discovered.” Jews were ejected from Spain, Copernicus wrote, and Bruno burned. The Ming Dynasty was formed, and the Gregorian calendar was adopted. Cromwell croaked, America revolted, the French revolted, Karl Marx, the Bolsheviks, 20 million dead in World War II, gas chambers, the atom split, Jews return to Palestine, Beatlemania and the Ayatollah.
And now the civilization on this little speck of earth was falling apart. But the mound would remain. And so would the penitentiary, a testament to Moundsville’s true work: locking people up and desecrating the dead. Everything around us was changing except the stars in the sky. Under that postcard picture sunset stood the fragile, naked life of our drunken bodies.
David Faulk is a graduate student living in Columbus, Ohio.
“Moundsville” by David Faulk appears in Dispatches from the Rust Belt: The Best of Belt Year One, our first-year print anthology. Order the book here: http://bit.ly/BestOfBelt
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