As you enter the state line of West Virginia you are greeted with a sign reading, "Welcome to West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful". Seeing this sign has always brought me a sense of comfort and joy, except for those few years the slogan was changed to, "Welcome to West Virginia, Open for Business". Thankfully the powers that be noticed the desperation in that slogan and went back to the original.
Every time I see that sign the memories of my childhood flash back in all of their unnerving glory. Playing in the creek with my cousins. Running through the woods without a care in the world. Falling into the snow and feeling like I never wanted to get up. Stealing gum from the gas station by my house. Holding my breath till I turned blue in my grandparent's pool. Getting drunk on malt liquor at a bonfire in high school. Counting the clouds while I was supposed to be playing little league in the outfield. Getting the kiss on my knee from my mom when I fell down playing tag. Climbing on the roof to look at the stars and imagine what my life would be like as a movie star.
It's truly amazing how a place can hold such joyful memories while at the same time awaken so many bad ones. I felt suppressed by a culture that I sometimes miss, Stockholm syndrome at its finest.
I was born into a family rich in their West Virginia roots. Generations of Appalachia natives who made their homes within the hills. A family that was big in size and in laughs. My mother's family, who raised me, is full of personalities and problems. A lower middle class family struggling together to achieve their piece of the American dream.
I felt like I never belonged in this group. I loved them and they loved me, but I felt like a foreign exchange student or an anthropologist studying the natives. They always accepted me for my differences, but I was still acutely aware of my black sheep status. I felt a stronger connection to my father who I saw as an intellectual mind and a creative soul. Though I felt a stronger connection in likeness, my father was absent throughout my life.
I was lucky to have a family that never made me feel bad about being different, but did their best to embrace me even when they didn't fully understand. Whether it was my cousins acting in all the plays I dictated they star in, or my aunts and uncles continually buying me furniture to add to my Barbie Dream House, they made me feel like my differences weren't that bad. They were my first example of how loving and accepting some West Virginians can be...some being the key word.
The people of West Virginia are an interesting bunch, to say the literal least. I feel like they are going through an identity crisis. They aren't sure what part of the country they fit into. They live in an area where the South meets the Midwest meets the Northeast and tucked ever so gently into the Appalachian mountains. Even reading maps as a child I was confused to where we fell demographically. Every book or map had a different opinion as to the region we should identify with.
Technically categorized as the South, by the Census Bureau, West Virginia has some major map related confusion. This confusion bleeds over into the culture. Depending on what county of the state you are in you are likely to hear different accents, and feel like you are in a different world.
I grew up in the Northern panhandle of West Virginia where the confusion grows even stronger. Gently placed above the Mason-Dixon Line I never felt like I belonged to the South, or southern culture. I felt the same way about the inhabitants of my town. Wen you think of the south you think of smiling friendly faces and culture rich in pride.
In almost every poll or article covering the subject of "The Happiest and Least Happy States in America", West Virginia almost always places dead last. Most polls measure this "happiness" based on many factors; individuals below the poverty level, obesity, the minimum wage, job opportunity, community involvement, and cost of living. West Virginia is a place with some of the highest rates of poverty and obesity and with some of the lowest rates of opportunity and livable wages.
I was one of the many people to grow up in the welfare system. Raised by a single mother struggling with the decision to stay in the system for the benefit of her children. Getting a full time job, that would barely pay the bills, or keeping the security of food stamps and Heath care for her children were her only options. She is smart and hard working but was a product of her environment and the place she was told she was allowed to hold in the world.
Growing up I felt my place, or the place others told me I belonged, a poor bastard hillbilly with no chance in hell of accomplishing any real success. People didn't always tell me this with words, sometimes I heard their opinions by what they didn't say. The parties I wasn't invited to, and the lack of opportunity I was given. So often the future of a child's success comes from the opportunities they think they have. It started when I began to be an actor. I knew I couldn't afford the nice head shots other kids had. I sat in rooms with agents and casting directors who praised my talent but told me I couldn't work without getting dental work. Dental work, besides the basic check ups and fillings, was not a covered on my welfare plan. I was being forced to let go a part of my dreams. I thought to myself, "Jeremiah you will never be able to accomplish that goal. You will never be able to afford that, and without getting your teeth fixed you will never be a successful actor."
It never occurred to me that those agents and casting directors could be wrong. I was meeting with people from Los Angeles and New York. People from companies like Mark Burnett Casting and Nickelodeon. I would get called back for TV shows and commercials but always given the same reasons why I didn't get the part. I gave up on that dream as a reality but never in desire. This idea was put in my head that my dreams were not possible, add that to the fact that everyone you know tells you what a long shot, and unattainable career choice acting is and you get a combination thats strong enough to kill a dream. I still pursued my dreams but never with any real thought of making them come true.
Wanting to be an actor was certainly not a normal aspiration of the members of my community. My town was filled with service men and women, coal miners, and people of all ages trying to figure out their place in this community. Working my part-time jobs as a teenager I felt surround by adults who weren't happy with their lives, or who were unable to better their situation. I was encompassed with this trapped feeling. I knew it wasn't the feeling of the town as a whole, but this feeling seemed to find me. A dark cloud, both literal and metaphoric, hovered over the town.
Along with this looming feeling I also didn't feel connected to the West Virginia culture. A lot of the culture is embedded in the mountaineer lifestyle. Hunting, fishing, and working with your hands are some of the cultural norms. I had a hard time pretending to be interested in any of these norms. I wasn't a fan of sports, which also didn't help in WVU and Steelers nation. Sports were a way for a lot of members of my community, and family, to connect and come together. A common concern over the Steelers winning the super bowl, or the Pens taking home the Stanley Cup created a nexus for peers of all age groups. Discussions over the impending deer hunting season, or the latest updates in weaponry formed bonds. All of these opportunities to connect were not possible with my interest and dreams.
Not all of my memories are ones of exclusion and sadness. There were times I felt right at home. Playing games with my family around the kitchen table, or tasting the sweetness of my grandma's brown sugar baked beans. Driving the winding roads of Wheeling, or taking that first bite of a tray of DiCarlos Pizza. These memories flood my thoughts just a frequently, if not more.
Even with some time and miles of distance from my hometown I still find my self missing West Virginia. I feel a connection to a culture I never felt like I was fully apart of. This makes me think; am I always going to be that kid wanting to fit in? I may never want to hunt or fish, but I always get happy when I hear John Denver or meet a fellow West Virginian. It gives me a sense of belonging I never felt while living there. I guess sometimes you need to be thousands of miles away to feel like you have a home.
Thanks for reading!
Make good choices and be safe with you body.