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‘Deliverance’ Continues to Define Burt Reynolds’ Career and Stereotypes in Appalachia

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The recent passing of actor Burt Reynolds has left the nation celebrating the man Rolling Stone deemed “The Last Good Ol’ Boy movie star.” His career spanned decades and roles in films like “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Boogie Nights” made him a household name, but in Appalachia, Reynolds is perhaps best known for a film that shapes perceptions of the region even today.

Even you have probably whistled or hummed a few notes from “Dueling Banjos” because of it.

More than 46 years after its release, the 1972 thriller “Deliverance” remains one of the most recognized pictures in American film history. Deliverance was preserved in the National Film Registry in 2008, which describes the film’s setting as a “gripping Appalachian ‘Heart of Darkness.’” It was chronicled by a New York Times dispatch as “redefining masculinity.”

The Library of Congress canonizes “Deliverance”’s engagement with allegorical themes, writing, “With dazzling visual flair, director John Boorman and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond infuse James Dickey’s novel with scenes of genuine terror and frantic struggles for survival battling river rapids — and in the process create a work rich with fascinating ambiguities about “civilized” values, urban-versus-backwoods culture, nature, and man’s supposed taming of the environment.”

“Deliverance” is, without fail, relentless and cerebral. Cultural references to the film have survived several generations, making it one of the most quoted screenplays of the late twentieth century. Today, much of the contemporary coverage marking recurring anniversaries of the film’s 1972 release often reflects on “Deliverance”’s conflation of rural space and rural people with terror and the grotesque.

Prior to filming, director John Boorman had never been to the American South.

“We needed someone who looked inbred for the banjo player,” Boorman told The Guardian in 2017. “My assistant found this boy, Billy Redden, who looked extraordinary, but couldn’t play. So, we made a shirt with an extra sleeve in it, and a musician crouched behind doing the fretwork as Redden strummed,.”

“There was a lot written afterwards about how ‘Deliverance’ libelled mountain people,” Boorman said, “but the locals were thrilled with the film.”

That wasn’t true for all locals, though, including “Banjo Boy” Billy Redden himself, who was reduced to a moniker that mocked his immortalized role., Redden regrets his cameo in “Deliverance” and he told The New Yorker working with Burt Reynolds on the film wasn’t ideal.

“Burt didn’t want to say nothing to nobody,” he shared with The New Yorker’s Tad Friend. “He wasn’t polite. And he made us look real bad—he said on television that all people in Rabun County do is watch cars go by and spit.” Later, Redden told American Public Media that “I’d like to have all the money I thought I’d make from this movie. I wouldn’t be working at Walmart right now. And I’m struggling really hard to make ends meet.”

That struggle likely led Redden to appear in a TV cameo role that invoked the cultural afterlife of Banjo Boy in a 2004 Blue Collar TV comedy montage staring notable comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy. The sketch depicted an “entry” in Foxworthy’s famous ongoing sketch series detailing a glossary of terms of the supposed “redneck” vernacular in which Redden was asked to appear playing a banjo in a part of a sketch where the comedian informed the audience that “raisin bread” means “Ray’s inbred” in redneck-speak. Perpetuating the “Deliverance” narrative.

The ubiquitous “Paddle faster, I hear banjos,” reference from the film became a shorthand to convey fear or bemusement with finding oneself in “treacherous” rural places or around unfamiliar rural people.

The graphic depictions of sexual violence and subplots that lead the audience to imagine a  pervasiveness of intercommunity incest in the rural Appalachian county film setting have contributed to the centuries-old narratives that make claims about mythic perversity and sexual degeneracy in rural American societies. “Deliverance”‘s cast of city dwellers who accidentally find themselves in hinterland flippantly murmur comments like “Talk about genetic deficiencies—isn’t that pitiful?” in a dialogue that consistently hints at a specter of perverse sexual transgressions rampant off road.

In reality, this subtext in the 1972 thriller became canon fodder in the mythmaking of a “backwardsness” that lurks beyond our urban centers that has since made for stock tropes overused in writing about Appalachian people and wilderness. In many ways, the cultural afterlife of “Deliverance” in the American popular consciousness has created a challenge for Appalachian people to respond to stigma about public and private aspects of life in our region and done little more but contribute to stereotypes.

In the wake of the passing of one of “Deliverance”’s lead actors, Burt Reynolds, who played pack-leader Lewis, I’ve spent a few nights in marathon mode. The film was credited for being career break for Reynolds, who reflected on the significance of his role as Lewis in some of his final interviews.

Here in Appalachia, we’re no strangers to embracing cultural touchstones that we find ourselves feeling ambivalent about.

I, for one, love NASCAR–a sport with a storied history of distinctly Appalachian mischief–which is often denigrated as being uncool vis-a-vis some of the same social stigmas introduced by films like “Deliverance” in the millennial alternative subcultures I often find myself in. I renounced my fandom for years, catching Daytona 500s in exile, because it became pervasive to lampoon so many cultural artifacts from my childhood until I learned that many of these conceptions were informed by classist stigma associated with things that are popular or common in Appalachian locales. Think: living in mobile homes is often seen as shameful and “trashy” while living in tiny homes is seen as cosmopolitan, eco-conscious, and chic.

Now, ever-popular Instagram models sport Dale Earnhardt ephemera in played-out streetwear looks with classic checkered Vans slip-ons as an ironic nod to early 2000s culture. Go figure.

In coming weeks, I’ll be reflecting on what it means to consume so many of my favorite exports of Reynolds’ critical acclaim in that fuzzy, uncertain place between being in critical analysis and sentimental nostalgia.

One the skills I’m most devoted to developing in my emotional life is the ability to hold onto a patient refrain from marking human beings “good” or “bad,” redeemable or irredeemable, worthy or unworthy. I’ve tried to refuse applying polarizing, binary logics to make sense of the actions of others because so much of us is impossible to categorize and so much of our histories can be explained by the formative events in our lives that have made us who we are.

The same is true of Appalachia. Counter to the narratives perpetuated by “Deliverance”’s reinforcement of ideas of the region as backwards and culturally incompetent, diversity of opinion does exist here after all.

It’s true that some roles in Burt Reynolds’ canon have led to unmatched stigma for Appalachian people and lifeways. And sometimes, we can feel like we’re trapped in a liminal space of not knowing what we feel when we lose a complicated figure in our society, but it’s okay to be patient.

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Prosecutors Unearthed This Catholic Abuse Case — How Many Other Scandals Stay Buried?

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It’s been a tough month for American Catholics.

Court documents released in mid-August revealed more than 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by hundreds of priests in Pennsylvania over the last seven decades. Given the length of time that has passed, new criminal charges are unlikely for most of the allegations, and the alleged behavior ranges from inappropriately communicating with a minor to rape and sexual assault.

Additionally, Pope Francis has ordered an investigation into allegations of misconduct in West Virginia’s Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, upon Bishop Michael Bransfield’s resignation. Victims are also now sharing stories about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a previous archbishop of Washington, D.C., who resigned in July due to allegations against him.

Victims and their advocates say the Pennsylvania report is only the tip of the iceberg, as there are likely thousands more victims of abuse who have never come forward or whose records are lost. Sadly, my own experience tells me that they are most likely right.

I was raised Catholic in Appalachian Ohio, in a small town of 10,000 called Ironton. Church is a centerpiece of life in my small hometown, an essential aspect of one’s identity. I attended Catholic schools from kindergarten until graduation. I saw the celebrity-like status that priests often enjoy among their parishioners. If the rest of Catholic America is anything like my hometown, it’s an atmosphere ripe for abuse.

I was lucky, though. I was active in the church growing up and got to know my pastor through my childhood and teenage years fairly well. There were never any rumors or accusations against him or any evidence of inappropriate behavior, as far as I know. As an altar server from ages 10 to 18 and Eucharistic minister from ages 17 to 20, I spent a lot of time alone with him and in the presence of other young boys and girls—and he never so much as looked at us inappropriately.

But he still commanded an unhealthy position, socially. It was a very conservative town, county and region of the country. It’s what is now condescendingly referred to as “Trump country.”

Religion—almost exclusively Christianity—is the tie that binds the community together. I didn’t meet any non-Christians until I attended a college in southern West Virginia, and even then it was only a handful. Very few dared to criticize their church or its dogma. To ask questions was to risk scorn and ridicule.

Because of this, people clamored for the attention and company of our pastor. He got invited to far more parties than he had time to attend. If he did show up, his presence was almost like a status symbol, even if you didn’t know him that well. It was a really big deal for both teachers and students when he would visit a class in the schools. Everyone wanted to sit next to him at sporting events.

There were several families of which he was considered a de facto member. Parishioners would feel slighted that he seemed to prefer their company more than others. When he broke the news that he was being transferred to another parish after 30 years, many acted as if he had announced he only had a month to live.

You can see how someone with less integrity or malicious intent could exploit this kind of atmosphere. Combine this with a destructive culture of machismo where even the slightest intimate contact (wanted or unwanted) with someone of the same sex would be a source of shame for young boys, and you’re left with a set of perverse incentives that discourages speaking up about abuse or inappropriate behavior. Throughout my adolescence, calling someone gay was one of the worst insults you could throw at them. Questions about sexuality could be a source of severe shame.

My father, who attended the same high school that I did only three decades prior, tells a story of showering after gym class, when one of the parish priests, now long-dead, unexpectedly jumped in the shower with him. Though they were alone, the priest (who was also the gym teacher) did not touch him, but he made my father feel leery and uncomfortable. Dad quickly got out of the shower.

I think it’s reasonable to assume the priest was there to do more than simply wash himself off. Yet my father never raised this issue with the school’s administration, the parish, or even his parents. Given the circumstances, the likelihood of them believing him was probably low. It’s impossible to know how many other stories there are like this that no one ever talked about, or ever will.

There most certainly are other communities in the U.S. and around the world with similar dynamics to my hometown. As a result, there are likely thousands of other stories of abuse that were buried, intentionally and not. The revelations in Pennsylvania will not be the last skeletons found in the Church’s closet.

Jerrod A. Laber is a DC-based writer and journalist, and a contributor for Young Voices. He grew up in southeastern Ohio and is an alumnus of Marshall University. His work has appeared in The National Interest, the Columbus Dispatch, and the Washington Examiner, among others. Follow him on Twitter @JerrodALaber.

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Documenting the Opioid Crisis in Numbers and Film

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I find myself having to drag my fingers over to click a Twitter link to read Caity Coyne’s Aug. 30, 2018, Charleston Gazette-Mail story headlined “Number of fatal drug overdoses in 2017 surpasses 1,000 mark in WV.”

The story is a grim check-up on how much worse the opioid overdose epidemic was in 2017 in West Virginia, in a state that is America’s opioid overdose epicenter. One can get dizzy easily from the numbers as the Mountain State passed the 1,000 mark in overdose deaths for the first time last year:

“Of the 1,011 overdose deaths recorded for 2017 so far, 870 — about 86 percent — involved an opioid. This is about a 15 percent increase from 2016, when 759 people — out of a total 890 — suffered fatal overdoses related to opioid use.”

Deeper in Coyne’s story is an illustrative paragraph about just how bad this crisis has gotten in a few short years:

Since 2012, the total number of fatal drug overdoses in the state has increased by 81 percent. West Virginia has consistently led the country in the rate of overdose deaths, a statistic that is unlikely to change given the most recent numbers.

If you’re wondering what the epicenter of the epicenter is, Coyne’s article lists Cabell, Wayne, Logan, Kanawha and Berkeley counties leading the state in fatal overdoses per 100,000 residents. This is revealing as it underscores, if it wasn’t already clear, that this crisis is not just a rural phenomenon, but is hitting hardest in the state’s two most urban counties, too.

So, this is hardly an epidemic of backwood towns, but of suburbs and downtowns, also. You’d be hard-pressed to find a family member or friend in West Virginia who — putting the Six Degrees of Separation principle into play — doesn’t know someone or know someone related to someone who has died in a recent year by opioid overdose.

Coyne’s article also notes a leap in overdose deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl. Fentanyl, for anyone into Russian Roulette with a needle, is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

My six degrees of separation: hugs to the family and good friends of my pal Jesse, who overdosed via fentanyl earlier this year. Too soon, my friend. Way, way too soon.

Which brings me to “Recovery Boys,”the recently released documentary by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, a West Virginia native, now available for viewing on Netflix.

I didn’t quite know what to expect from this follow-up to McMillion Sheldon’s revelatory and Oscar-nominated documentary short “Heroin(e).” That documentary, for those who have not seen it (and, really, you must must see it), follows three women — Huntington’s fire chief; a Cabell County family court judge; and a street missionary making outreach to prostitutes.

We see the three women, each in their own fashion, working the front lines of the city’s devastating opioid epidemic– Huntington is the epicenter of the epicenter of the epicenter.

The 40-minute documentary is revelatory in that it manages to look head-on at an overwhelming, spirit-crushing, soul-draining crisis and finds some inspiring tough love in the front-line trenches. Somehow, their spirits — and a viewer’s spirit — comes out the other side, dinged and bruised, but with one’s hope, if not unscathed, not mortally wounded.

“Heroin(e)” also manages the hard documentary trick of telling a dire tale and leaving a viewer wanting more. I was surprised looking up a link to its Netflix page and being reminded how short the documentary is, a mere 39 minutes.

In “Recovery Boys,” McMillion Sheldon and her crew go longer, at one hour and 29 minutes. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to finally pull up all the film they’d shot onto a screen and start editing. But it must have been a daunting task. Her crew spent months and months and months,  day and night, following the ins and outs of the lives of four young West Virginians plagued with substance abuse disorder.

We’re introduced to them as they enter Jacob’s Ladder, a rehab clinic founded by Dr. Kevin Blankenship, a big-spirited specialist in critical care, whose program pulls the young addicts out of the streets and onto a working farm.

There are ups. One of the men comes to life interacting with the farm’s animals, bringing to life a dormant family farm upbringing. You glimpse the boy again in the adult addict. There’s also a delightful visit to a barn dance set to the uncredited old-time music of my friend Paul Gartner’s group “Born Old.”

And there are many downs. The young men try and put their best face on things, as they struggle to keep parental rights to children who hardly know them; to hold onto jobs as convicted felons peeing into cups; to manage the transition from drugged-out sofa dweller to get-to-work-before-dawn employee.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for McMillion Sheldon to have ended her tale about an hour in, at a semi-triumphant moment as some of the young men graduate out of the farm work program into supervised apartments. That’s where many a newspaper feature story about recovering addicts ends, with uplift and hope for the future.

But she is too honest a documentarian to leave it at that, even though it might have seemed a nice bookend to her previous documentary. Yet in fact, “Recovery Boys” is indeed a powerful bookend to “Heroin(e),” as it concludes with some of the young men seemingly on the path to recovery — shakily, but with at least one foot planted on the ground — while others have heartbreakingly gone missing in action.

The point being, we are all in this for the long haul. There are no simple solutions to what amounts to a crisis of societal dimensions and not one that is easy to file and forget under “Stupid, Weak Rural Folks Who Are Safe to Ignore.”

“Recovery Boys,”  “Heroin(e)” and coverage by dogged media outlets like the Charleston Gazette-Mail are bugle calls for all hands on deck. Sobriety isn’t easy, recovery won’t come cheap and turning away is not an option. How could it be when the results of the crisis are in our faces every day?

I showed a draft of this article to a friend who works with rural school systems. He responded with a text noting that he had just checked in with two West Virginia principals, each of whom had two students whose parents had overdosed since school began.

“That is,” texted my friend, “one death per week since school has started.”

“Recovery Boys” is a reminder of what lies on the other side of the grim newspaper statistics — parentless children, neighbors’ sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, grandmas and grandpas, overloaded court systems, front-line warriors and stressed out recovery grunts, all struggling to get us to a Malcolm Gladwell tipping point.

The subtitle to Gladwell’s iconic treatise on how things never seem to change until they finally do is instructive when it comes to how to address the opioid crisis in print, film, 12-step groups and in communities far and wide, tiny and large: “How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.”

If she has it in her, I look forward to a third part to McMillion Sheldon’s opioid epidemic work. That would be documenting the aftermath of when we finally — please, oh, please — cross a tipping point, when overdose numbers begin to plummet instead of rising like a fever.

Douglas Imbrogno is a freelance writer, social media video producer and trainer. Contact him through his website http://thewebtheater.com

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In the Black: Clearing the Air about Coal Dust

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Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky who writes about his experience working in the mining industry. Read more of his columns here.

As I drilled the outside hole on the last row of roof bolts, I looked down to make sure that the air-sampling cartridge I was operating had not come out from underneath my shirt.

The cartridge was connected to a hose, which connected to a pump clipped to my belt, like a Walkman like when I was 10, pedaling my bike up and down the holler.

I moved the drill to the inside to put up my last bolt, adjusting the cartridge because the corner of the frame was digging into my sternum. The smallest of objects made life miserable when you’re working in 42 inches of height and bolting over three inches of mud and rock left behind by the continuous miner.

It was my day to take dust samples, the air-quality tests that were mandated by mine-safety rules. These rules required mines to measure the amount of coal-dust in the air we were breathing. They were supposed to help protect us from contracting black lung disease.

This was not my first go round of dust samples, and this would not be my last. There was more than one way to get an acceptable air test. One way was to walk around the entire section tightening ventilation curtain and hanging them back every time the scoop or shuttle car tore them down. Another was to protect the dust-monitoring cartridge from collection too much respirable dust by covering it with something like my shirt. It’s not like anyone asked me to do it. Everyone knew about it: my co-workers, the mine foreman, even the state inspector who signed the pump out to me that morning. We all know about black lung, we know how slow and miserable the death is, but come on, it’s not going happen to me. They say cigarettes cause cancer and alcohol causes liver failure. I’ve watched my dad smoke a couple packs a day and keep the Kwik Six liquor store in business for the last 26 years, and he’s doing just fine.

Thurman backed the roof bolter out of the cut. Our filters were clogged and we knew we needed to clean our dust collection boxes. That would put more dust in the air. “Hey Thurman, I’m gonna take this pump down to the intake and hang it up while we clean our boxes,” I said.

He replied, “All right, ya know you can wrap it with one of these clean rags and stuff in the glue box too. Either way it will be fine. Just wanted to save you a trip across the section.” I listened. As we cleaned our dust boxes we joked. “Hey Thurman, think I orta just stuff this f****** thing inside the dust filter and send it back? Tell them Todd wouldn’t give us time to hang our curtain or clean our filters and we have to breathe this shit all shift?” He chuckled with a better plan. “I tell ya what, hang it off the back next to the muffler and let it just take in all the shit coming out of there and we can park the ass end of this drill up there when the old man cuts that punch through. Orta get plenty of dust that way.”

We both chuckled. See, as miners, we knew the system. We knew that a pump going back with too clean of a sample would not pass inspection; it would be an obvious falsified test. We also knew that if the pump was sent back with too large of a sample it would be known that we intentionally forced non-respirable dust into the pump. There was a fine line that was about as wide as the ass end of a Mack truck. We could walk it easily. We wanted good results for many reasons. Mostly because we didn’t want to work our asses off keeping up the proper ventilation. We wanted to do our jobs and go home. Yea, we might have been putting ourselves at risk for health issues later on in life, but you don’t drive the speed limit out of fear of getting a ticket or at some point getting in an accident, do you? Hell no, you go 5-10 mph over because you are comfortable and don’t think anything bad will happen to you.

+++

Six years later, a few, maybe 30 or more dust samples later. I am the section boss, shortly before we ride the elevator down the shaft, I meet a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector who will be riding to the section with us to do a routing dust sampling test. We all know the process, so I go to Shimwell and Eric, our scoop operators. “Y’all need to grab a few extra rolls of curtain, extra nails, and as soon as we get to the section, start tightening everything down and make sure all the curtains are right.” The curtains control airflow in the mine, and that affects the amount of dust that gets airborne.

I move over to Pat, Goat, and Bubba, our shuttle car operators. “You all keep all the curtains up and make sure the miners got fresh air. We’re gonna be taking dust samples today. Y’all know what to do.”

I moved onto our roof bolters and continuous miner operator. Same message: Keep the ventilation right, keep the pumps true, we need samples that look legitimate and pass.

When we arrive on the section the inspector assigns pumps to men. They have to wear them on his or her body for a continuous eight hours to record a full shift of production. We knew we couldn’t keep the dust levels down by pretending to have a mechanical failure. That sample would not pass scrutiny. We had to mine coal, keep our ventilation to meet the requirements of our permit, and get good results.

The cartridge or cassette was the business end of air-monitor pump. It was attached to one end of a hose, and the other end of the hose was attached to the pump that pulled air through cartridge to collect the sample. What mattered wasn’t necessarily how much dust was in the air but how much dust hit the cartridge.

Shuttle car drivers would often wrap the end of the cassette with a rag and drop it in their lunch box. The continuous miner operator would hang it just inside of his shirt to protect it from the dust that covered his lips, nose, and cheekbones.

As the inspector and I walked up to the working face of the section checking for ventilation, roof control, the usual, he asked to watch the roof bolters work. I was slightly nervous, afraid of what he might see. Would the pumps be stuffed into an empty glue box? Would they be wrapped in rags and placed in a lunch box? Would they be hanging off the back of the roof bolter pulling in all of the exhaust from the dust collection system? I didn’t know what to expect. I tightened the top of the ventilation curtain as I made my way to the roof bolter, then I heard the blower slow down. Then, the circular motion of a light, telling me to come to them.

“F***, he’s found a violation,” I said to myself. The inspector looked at me, stone faced. “You see this? See where this pumps hanging?” I did, it was clipped on the small platform used to hold bolts, glue, and plates, directly above the operators hand controls.

“Yea, it’s within the operators working area, that should be fine, right?” He smiled, much like a child taking a shit in the corner of the room, thinking that you can’t see them. “Oh, it’s completely legal. You won’t get a passing result, though. This thing is hanging right by the drill pot and every time he pushes too hard, plugs his steel, and it blows out, this pump’s going to suck all that rock and coal dust giving you a bad result. I’d recommend him ‘taking better care of his pump.’”

He said those last six words while making air quotes like a 13-year-old girl. I knew what he meant, so did Carl. He was letting us know to make sure the pump didn’t pull in excessive dust and that he was OK with us not following the rules to a T.

This inspector wasn’t telling me to hang the pump in fresh air and completely falsify the result. He was letting it be known that he was aware and would not fine me for bending the rules to the splintering point to get passing results. Now if I were to bend that rule until it snapped, I’d probably be facing some serious charges. I knew this, he knew this, it was an unspoken policy. I worked with the inspectors and they would work with me. We all wanted this mine to continue running with as few hiccups as possible. His job relied on the performance of this mine just as much as mine did. Anyway, it’s not like we were skipping roof bolts and creating an immediate life threatening danger.

To quote Thurman, “It ain’t like any of us would get any black lung benefits anyway. You know those f****** politicians will find a way to screw us out of it. So f*** it, who cares?” This was a pretty good summary of my attitude as well, along with feeling invincible. Most of us in the industry felt that way.

Then six years after I left the industry there is a dramatic increase of black lung in young, old, and middle-aged miners. People are dying, mine foreman are being prosecuted. However, when you read the newspaper, it’s all the fault of the big, bad corporation. You never get the full story. Just like anything else, you either don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to know about what really goes on underground.

This story was originally published by The Daily Yonder. 

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