Another Letter From Vermont: Charles Walker Scholarship Recipient Charlie Pritchard

The Crumbling of the Mountain State

Donald Trump’s promises to bring back coal jobs to West Virginia tapped into sentiment which the dispossessed of West Virginia had longed to hear – that, if only for a few seconds, manual labour could once again occupy a standing of nobility in antithesis to the vexing realm of automation. West Virginia remains a woefully underfunded state – it bears disreputable statistics from the highest obesity rate, the highest smoking rate and the highest level of drug related deaths in the U.S. Throughout the twentieth century, West Virginia had been location of the most intense episodes of industrial strife, testified by such incidents as the Paint Creek Strike of 1912 and the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. Following the Great Depression and World War II, union activity continued, yet the environmental implications of contemporary struggles have shifted the debate dramatically. The development of mountaintop removal mining practised through automated technology has caused myriad problems for local residents. During the process waste is often disposed into nearby rivers leading to reservoirs, polluting drinking water and causing floods when these blockages break under heavy rainfall.

During the first week of February, myself and a group of Middlebury College students set out for the Appalachian South Folklife Center in the small village of Pipestem to work with local communities and activists and learn the contemporary struggles facing the state. The site is run by Tim, who is originally from Santa Barbara, California, who came to West Virginia during the Civil Rights struggle, where he met Don West, a radical unionist and preacher who founded the ASFC as a hideout for Left dissidents. The ASFC typically receives students from colleges across America during the spring and summer breaks, so our group largely had the Center to ourselves.

 

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Appalachian South Folklife Center

 

Tim teaches music at a local elementary school and can often be found playing the banjo with his wife at an open-mic night in the local town of Princeton. Tim however works intensely at establishing cooperative relationships with community organisations; the Princeton Arts Collective, The Wade Center (a non-profit school for children) and the Bluefield Union Mission (a food bank and community welfare organisation). Tim seemed optimistic about the progress made in Princeton. Once a declining mining town, a group of local artists and musicians organised arts projects to stimulate the town’s economy. Down side alleys, they painted murals, and encouraged contributions from local painters. A common haunt is the Riff-Raff, the bottom floor a shop dealing in sculptures and crafts, and upstairs a club showcasing musical talent in the neighborhood.

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Princeton, West Virginia

 

Much of the ASFC’s work, however, is devoted to home repairs for locals who are unable to afford ordinary repair services, often including households damaged as a result of mountaintop removal mining. The repairman Greg exudes enthusiasm for his job, at being able to work alongside students not only from elsewhere in the US but across the world. ‘Most of the people I get come from around Chicago, but I get people from all over’ he tells us, ‘even from China and Japan’. He set us off repairing the roof of a woman’s trailer which had been damaged from heavy rainfall, which we managed to fix in 5 days.

The next day, Tim introduced us to the Bluefield Union Mission, which donates food and blankets to struggling families. The Union Mission had been functioning since the Great Depression, though its diner dining hall had gradually transformed into take-away shelter. In the rear of the building, the Mission held services and allowed meetings with local activists and trade union leaders. As our group supplied the visitors with food, it was depressing to realise how much work the staff members would have on their hands at times when volunteers were unavailable, work that would go largely unnoticed by local authorities.

Afterwards we met with Tina, an activist who has campaigned vigorously for healthcare rights, though abortion laws in particular are the focus of her efforts. ‘There’s only one place in the state that can offer abortions now’, she tells us. ‘Most cross the state line into Virginia’. With recent Democratic victories like Doug Jones in Alabama, Phil Murphy in New Jersey, Ralph C. Northam in Virginia and especially Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia state legislature, she maintains an admirable degree of optimism. When asked about the prospects for Bernie Sanders in 2020, she replied ‘I like Bernie – I think it’s promising that he won more votes than Hillary in West Virginia, but I think we need some new blood’.

On the final day I visited the Wade Center in Bluefields, just a few miles from Pipestem. The Wade Center began as a conventional state school at which Tim formerly taught music. Eventually the school closed and the building was bought up to establish a non-profit school for disadvantaged children. The lack of employment opportunities coupled with opioid addiction leads many parents to delegate their roles as providers to day-care services like the Wade Center. Here, the children are fed in the evening and are given packed dinners to take home with them for the weekends. They also have a space to concentrate on homework given from other schools, and a safe recreational environment, although the playgrounds were mostly out of bounds. When staff members began to find syringes in the grass, they cordoned the space off. There were even bunk-beds where children could sleep for a few nights if they needed to. Nevertheless, In spite of the valuable support the Wade Center offers in every aspect of their lives, the next chapter leaves little reason for optimism for those without reliable home support to prepare them for high school.

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The Wade Center, Bluefield, West Virginia

 

West Virginia is a state forgotten by those who govern it. Governor Jim Justice’s investment in the Russian coal and steel company Mechel using state funds have led to immense debts of $4.6 million which Justice shows little indication of settling in the near future, despite the state’s dire need of reformed infrastructure. Yet discussions of rural poverty in America are overshadowed outside the state – on college campuses and among Northern state activists. The awakening of activists such as Tina have indicated a growing momentum among the formerly disengaged. But we have yet to see a similar awakening in the Northern states – of the disinterested geared into motion with progressives prepared to communicate with senators and party candidates to shape an agenda for a presidential candidate of 2020.

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Book Review: Thanks Obama, My Hopey Changey White House Years

By Danielle Prostrollo

The last few weeks in the library have been a veritable book lover’s Christmas. A ton of new stock has come in, and picking one to highlight was difficult. I picked this one because the subject of the autobiography. The author is a speechwriter and ‘people behind the people’ stories fascinate me.

Thanks Obama: my hopey changey White House Years, by David Litt

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To head this review off, I thought the book was great. The story centers around a White House speech writer, David Litt, and his journey from newbie underling to member of Obama’s trusted team. It would be easy to dismiss this book as an Obama love letter, but this is not about the former president. It’s not even actually about the administration. It is rare to get a glimpse into life on The Hill from someone who does not stand directly in the public light.  
 
Equally important and refreshing, is the writing style. The book reads without difficulty, like a buddy is filling you in on his day. I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise, Litt is a speechwriter, after all. There is an unexpected amount of humor and relatability in the book. He talks about feeling invincible, about moments of awkward embarrassment, and the relatable moments of utter boredom. But, interspersed between these normal-person feelings are trips on Air Force One, nights out at Lincoln Center, and conversations with the President.
 
You don’t need to be a policy wonk to enjoy this book. Anyone interested in a little glimpse into the political life, enjoyed The West Wing, or reads every book that comes about The Hill, will enjoy this read.

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Electric Light, the health fad of the future!: 101 Years Ago at the Norwich Library

by Don Allen

In Norwich in June of 1917, for the price of one penny,  you could have picked up a little booklet called “City and County of Norwich Public Library Readers Guide”.

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Our friends at Picture Norfolk (click here for their webpage) discovered this interesting booklet while going through their ephemera, and thought that we here at the 2nd Air Library would be interested in it given the first topic listed on the cover: America And The War.

Of course, this refers to the first World War, and the 2nd Air Division did not yet exist. But it is still fascinating to see what, in the heart of World War I, the library chose to highlight about England’s cousin across the pond.

Not surprisingly there are a number of books on the general history of the United States. Titles like “The War of American Independence, 1775-1783” by John M. Ludlow and “The American Civil War” by Frederic L. Paxson. While these books are now long since gone from the library, you can find digital copies online at archive.org. I personally enjoy reading old history books in order to compare what they knew and thought during their time to what we know and think today.

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A separate section of the page contains four books specifically on Abraham Lincoln. And right below that is a book on then-President Woodrow Wilson, entitled “President Wilson: his problems and his policy” by H. Wilson Harris. Funnily enough, if you look nearer the top of the page (third listing down), the library has listed works BY Wilson, who was the only US President to date with a PhD. One is titled “Division and reunion, 1829-1889” published in 1893, about twenty years before he became president (also available on archive.org if you’re interested). Also listed is Wilson’s controversial five-volume “History of the American People”. In it he defends racial segregation and the actions of the original incarnation of the KKK.

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Books on the Constitution and Government, the American Navy, Literature, Education, and America and the War round out the remaining suggestions for American reading. The booklet also celebrates the then-centenary of Jane Austen’s death by offering lists of works by her and biographies of her. And much like today’s library still does, the library hosted a public lecture by M.M. Pattison Muir, Esq, M.A., Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. (Click here for information on our upcoming series of lectures in March.)

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As much as I love seeing all the old books, I have to admit that the part that made me giggle was the advertising on the back cover. The Corporation and Electricity Dept. was located at 4-10 Duke Street, with a telephone number of: 154.

154.

That amuses me greatly.

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Just remember, electric light: it’s good for your health!

 

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Book Review: The Gatekeepers-How The White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency by Chris Whipple

by Don Allen

You have to be the person who says no. You’ve got to the be the son of a bitch who basically tells somebody what the president can’t tell him” — Leon Panetta, Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton

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Every president since George Washington has had a personal secretary, however, it wasn’t until 1857 that it was made an official White House position and paid for by the government, rather than by the president personally. In 1961, after a few name changes, power consolidations and shuffling of duties along the way, it finally evolved into the modern office of White House Chief of Staff, currently held by John F. Kelly for the Trump administration.

The Chief of Staff’s position is an incredibly important one: he oversees the White House staff; manages the Presidents schedule; decides who meets with the President; and negotiates with Congress. Because of these duties, he enjoys unparalleled access to the President, and, as the title of Chris Whipple’s book states, is known as “the gatekeeper”. Several of these men have gone on to other important positions, including Donald Rumsfeld (future Sec. of Defense), Alexander Haig (future Sec. of State), and Dick Cheney (future Vice-President).

Whipple’s book details this extraordinary position, which does not require Senate confirmation and serves completely at the President’s discretion, by interviewing seventeen living former Chief’s of Staff  and two former presidents. Starting with the Nixon administration and running through the Obama presidency, Whipple details how “…when the president makes a life-and-death decision, often the chief of staff is the only other person in the room. Each chief can make or break an administration, and each president reveals himself by the chief he picks…the chief of staff can make the difference between success and disaster”.

 

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