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Excerpts of West Virginia Travel Diary
State 37 - WEST VIRGINIA 15 NOV 99 - 19 NOV 99

 

Quartermaster

Visiting the State Capitol and State Museum today. Try to find a parking spot and discover to our dismay: metered parking. What a drag. In all 36 states we've been in, only a few Capitols impose metered parking; the norm is complimentary Visitor Parking. It's not the money that bothers us, it's the rushing to "beat the meter maid." Dig in our wallets and find enough quarters between us to grant us two hours, not much time to tour both sites. After touring the Capitol, I realize two hours have passed already, and I haven't done the state museum yet. So I dash into the State Museum to see if they can change a dollar. The woman at the desk, an older woman dressed in hip, artsy clothing, replies that they do not have any change, nor a change machine. "Is there anyplace at all to get change?" I ask desperately. No. None. Then the woman hesitates. Glances at her purse on the floor in the corner of her desk. Looks up at me. Hesitates again. Picks up her purse and reluctantly takes a quarter out and gingerly places it on the counter. "Take this." She says, unconvincingly, parting regretfully with her quarter. "Otherwise," she sighs, "you'll get a ticket." I don't want to take her quarter because I can sense that she really, really, *really* doesn't want to part with it. I can see her wrestling with the dilemma of giving her precious coin to a stranger. I decline her offer again. She is visibly relieved. But rethinks the situation and insists. "The fine is very steep," she warns. "Go ahead," she says, "take it." I accept the quarter and drop a bundle full of thanks and gratitude into her lap. Run to the meter and find to my surprise, that I've still got an hour remaining on the time box. The needle must be stuck. I run back to the museum and return the quarter to the reluctant donor. Much relieved, she gladly accepts the quarter and I begin my tour of the State Museum, unbeholden to anyone.

Museum musing

The West Virginia State Museum is in a huge, modern building on the Capitol Complex across from the beautiful, elegant Capitol. But, sadly, the museum itself is located in the dark, windowless basement of this glassy building, and its floors are carpeted in a horse-manure brown. Descending the stairs into the bowels of the building and being greeted with this manure-brown carpet has a singularly foul affect on the visitor. But even worse is the feeling of neglect that permeates the interior, like a favorite toy cast aside by a child who's moved on to other things. The place is empty and hollow-feeling, as if one could hear his echo should he give a yell. On this particular day no other visitors are in the museum except me and a woman with five children: four boys, one girl, ages 6 to 12, the girl being the youngest. At different exhibits I frequently bump into this family of five. We smile and pass on to the next display. At the exhibit displaying a replica of a coal mine's "Company Store," I push the button that is supposed to give me an audio narration. Button doesn't work. I move to the next exhibit: an Appalachian log house. Push the audio button. No sound. One of the little boys from the family of five,ventures toward me. "It doesn't work," he says authoritatively. "You, see," he says pointing, "the wire is clipped." He extends his little index finger to a wire dangling aimlessly from the button, connected to nothing as it rises in the air, curls and spirals up like a pig's tail. "They all are broken," the boy laments. His mother rushes over to investigate her son's talking to a stranger. "Yes," the mother confirms. "This place was really nice when it first opened. I used to date the man who ran it. He was so proud of all these exhibits, and now they've let things go." She glances around the room sadly. I, too, scan the museum floor. It is still is a nice museum. The exhibits are wonderful. But it has this, "nobody wants me anymore" feel to it. I think if the administrators would just change the carpet color to something brighter, or put the museum on a different floor (preferably make both changes) it might attract more visitors. As such, it seems unwanted and unappealing. Poor thing.

A well-rounded mother

Move to the glassblowing exhibit, the last exhibit in the museum. And, look! A window. The natural sunlight flows in and hits the glassware, casting streams of radiant hues on the walls. Oh, so pretty. All the colors. All the shapes. All the hard work involved to make each piece of glass a testament to its creator. A glassblowing video is in the room next to this display. The woman with five children enters the video room and I ask her to let me know when the film starts. I continue my tour of glassware when I hear a voice from the video room, "Go outside and tell that lady the film is starting." One of the older boys runs out to greet me and tells me the movie is about to start. It's a small closet of a room with a set of carpeted stairs for seats. I sit on a carpeted step among this family and get a closer examination of its members. The mother is perfectly round. Round face. Round body. Round haircut. She's a very loving mother. I had noticed earlier that she seems to truly enjoy her children. And they enjoy her. She's always laughing. Always having fun with them. I noticed earlier, too, that she doesn't *instruct* her children on the exhibits, as I've seen other parents do in other museums. ("Now Johnny. Look at this. Do you know what this is?" As Johnny looks on with impatient boredom or ignores the parent's words and looks everywhere *but* where the parent is directing his attention.) Sometimes, well, most times, I see parents chasing after their children trying to give them a good education at the museum, but losing the enjoyment of it all by trying to teach instead of explore together. A constant power struggle ensues while parent tries to teach and child resists instruction. These scenes rush through my mind as I note the difference with this mother. She doesn't instruct. She doesn't teach, she explores with her children. The overall tone is fun and adventure. I see that she doesn't have to chase after her children, either, because they are always at her side. None want to leave because they're afraid they'll miss the fun. It's hard to explain. But joy hovers over this family like I've never seen before. Now, as we sit in the darkened theatre I venture to ask if these children are all hers. She admits they are. And I'm amazed at the politeness of each child. No child speaks out of turn. Each waits until the other finishes his or her sentence before telling me about himself. The movie interrupts our conversation, and the children sit in silence. After the film they ask all kinds of questions about glassblowing. The mother does not give a ready answer, instead, she answers each question with a question. "Why do you think?" Or, "How would you do it?" And then lets the child explore the answer himself. Very Socratic. One of her children asks for money for a soda. "No." Mom replies. "Now, you know I have no more change. We used it in the meters, remember?" She turns to me and explains. "I think it's terrible that the state charges people to park at the Capitol. It's our home. We shouldn't have to pay to visit. So when we got here today, I told the kids they could either use the quarters to have sodas from the vending machine or we could use all our quarters to put in the meters that had expired." One of the boys turns to me with a big smile. "Yeah. It was so much fun. We ran to find the meters with the red signs on them and put our quarters in so that person won't get a ticket." (So that explains my extra hour on the meter.) What a treat. What little angels these kids are. What a great mother.

No strings attached

I awake today so happy. Life is wonderful. A fantastic day of sunshine and warmth as Harvey rests nestled among these autumn-gold West Virginia hills. Sunshine, swans, duck ponds, lakes and a warm breeze. Lovely. Just lovely. Hum happily while baking bread, cookies and fixing a real stick-to-the-ribs, home-cooked dinner. While dinner is cooking I brew a cup of tea and begin glancing through the William-Sonoma Holiday catalog I had picked up in Cincinnati last week. Flipping through page upon page of gaiety, I succumb to a heavy sadness that lays its weight across my body like the lead apron dentists put on you before taking X-rays. I'm cloaked in a heavy blue funk. The festive Holiday catalog makes me realize that Ken and I will be alone this coming Thanksgiving, Christmas, and -- of all things -- New Millennium's Eve. Ken is a wonderful companion, but I miss women . . . my sisters, my girlfriends, and, of course, Mums. Sometimes I feel like a puppet whose strings have been cut. The strings of family and friends are my support, they are who I am. Without them, I'm a spineless pile of wood. (Hmm . . . perhaps "Puppet" is not the best example for it implies that people pull my strings and I respond. It's not like that. It's more like feeling connected and part of an overall show, playing a part in something bigger than myself and my own solitary life.)

Empty stockings

West Virginia is known for glass-making. Seems the state is loaded with silica, a basic ingredient in the glass-making industry. Today as we tour the scenic Midland Trail, we pass a cute little pink shop of hand-blown glassware. Inside this tiny store are glass shelves filled with all different shapes, sizes and colors of hand-blown glassware glistening gloriously in rainbow colors. I spy some State eblem shot glasses in the corner. Each shot glass has a state name silkscreened on the front and images of famous scenes from the state. Oooh . . .This will be a perfect little gift to put in Ken's X-mas stocking. Why, just the other night we wanted to have some "GoldKenn," that great chocolate liqueur we purchased in Helsinki a few years ago. But when we went to decant this special liqueur we realized that we don't have any glasses for aperitifs. So I decide to buy two shot glasses: West Virginia cuz that's where we are and Nevada, cuz that's a big drinking state. Once again I enlist the aid of the saleslady to help me purchase these glasses without attracting Ken's attention. Once again, the lady at the store conspires with me in a devilish glee as we wrap and sneak the glasses into a bag before Ken catches on to what we're doing. And, just as it happened in Kentucky when I bought the X-mas stockings, Ken sees the bag and inquires of its contents. "It's for Christmas," I say defensively. "Oh. Okay." Ken replies and asks no more questions. "Oh. All right. Do you really want to see what's in the bag?" Ken assures me he can wait till Christmas. -- But I can't. "Look! They're shot glasses for when we have GoldKenn again." So another Christmas surprise is spoiled. Last week I gave Ken the little box of chocolates I had purchased in Cincinnati for his stocking. If I keep revealing these surprises, his stocking will be empty on Christmas Day.

Do you take Visa?

I'm getting tired of asking that question. Wherever I go, "Do you take Visa?" If not, I take my business elsewhere. It's the only "currency" we have. Today I go to the local grocery store, actually, the *only* grocery store in the area. It's a small store and appears it's not Visa-agreeable. As I approach the automatic door I notice it does not feature that comforting "Visa" emblem. I wonder how far must I drive today to get groceries on credit? "Do you take Visa?" I ask a girl bagging groceries. The young girl replies, "Where are you from? You're not from around here are you?" I'm astonished that just four words give away my accent. "No. I'm not." I confess. "But . . . just four words give me away?" "Actually, I could tell the minute you walked in here that you're not from around here because of the way your dressed. But, to answer your question, yes, we do take Visa." Not until I get back to the trailer and unload the groceries do I wonder. "Wait a minute...the way I'm dressed? What does she mean by that?"

Black and bleak

Tour the Exhibition Coal mine today. Everything seems black and bleak. A rail cart carries us underground through the depths of the mine. Our guide is a retired coal miner who tells us of the old days when men worked by the light of the little flame that burned on the rim of their cloth caps (no hardhats yet). To illustrate how dark the conditions were, the guide shuts off the overhead lights and strikes a match to light one of these little kerosene containers the workers wore on their caps. Ken and I gaze in horrible silence. These unfortunate men worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, in total darkness. Literally, Sunday was Sun Day. The only day they saw the sun. The company paid them by piecework. The miners would work on their knees or lying on their backs in these little coal holes and would load up a cart, mark their name on it and, send it above ground to get weighed by the supervisor, who always erred in the company's favor. Of course, on its way to the supervisor, a good-for-nothing miner might swithch name tags and get credit for another man's hard labor. The men were paid 20 cents per one-ton load, averaging 10 loads a day, making their wages $2.00 per day. From that small paycheck they purchased all their own work tools, their work clothes, boots, caps and the supply of kerosene to keep their headlamps lit, and they even had to pay for their own canary, the coal miner's best friend and constant companion down in the mines. The miner would work alongside his chirping canary. If the canary stopped singing, the miner knew he had three minutes to get out of his work hole or he'd be dead, too. Canaries typically died evey three weeks. Some new tools were invented which improved the worker's income so that they were able to do 16 tons a day at 20 cents per ton, leading to the song, "You work 16 tons whaddya get? Another day older and deeper in debt." And they also used metal tags, nailed to their carts to prevent someone else from switching name tags. But because they had to constantly replenish their supplies at the Company Store -- even the food and clothing for their family -- the company actually earned much more from the men who always seemed to "owe their soul to the company store." The miner giving us this tour today tells these sad tales of early miners and says that in his day things were easier: he earned $43/day and the company supplied him the tools and work clothes -- including saftety boots and hardhat. "But the danger is always there." He tells us. "Always." He pauses, looks down at his feet. "I was carried out on a stretcher three times in my career. One cave-in in particular, I thought my life was over. All I could think of was who would take care of my son? My wife and I had just had a baby boy, and as they carried me out on the stretcher I said to myself, 'I've got to live. I've got to live! Who'll take care of my boy?' I wasn't worried about dying for myself because I made my peace with God a long time ago, so I'm not afraid of dying. But I was afraid for my son." That was 30 years ago. And his story makes me wonder where his son is now? Does the son appreciate the sacrifices his father made for him? It makes me realize, too, how our parents toiled so much more than we do today. They sacrificed so much more and took so much more abuse than we're willing to withstand. Really, my generation is a bunch of softies, constantly whining whenever things don't go our way. A bunch of babies we are. And I'm the Baby Huey of the lot. The biggest baby of them all. Always pouting. Always dissatisfied with life. It's sickening. I really do want to change and be more appreciative of the easier road I have today because of the struggles my parents and grandparents before me suffered to pave the way. A tip of the hat to those who dared to join the union. The threat of unions kept the exploiters in check. Fraught with all its own inside problems, as it is, it's the reason workers have a voice today and the reason for much of our workers safety.

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