When you look beneath the surface, there's not a lot of difference in the minds of people in 2012 West Virginia or the 1960s Alabama.
I noticed the truck sitting there as I walked out of The Lil’ General with the Mr. Pibb and Pringles – Original Flavor -- in my hand. The ice cooler next to the door had age spots of rust on it and dents like acne on a teenagers face. Reading the flyers taped to the outside was like seeing a brief history of the town. Five weeks ago there was a bake sale over at the Baptist Church. Someone lost a deaf and blind dog with three legs who answered to the name of “Lucky”; the question of how a deaf dog could answer to anyone wasn’t lost on me. There was a three family yard sale going on next Saturday and someone offering banjo lessons down at the courthouse after work for ten dollars a lesson.
The ice cooler creaked as I leaned up against it. Glancing at the truck, I lit a cigarette. At the same moment – as if mocking me -- a lighter flared on the driver’s side. I blew a puff of smoke as I took a sip of Mr. Pibb and broke the seal on The Pringles – Original Flavor. With years of experience, I held the cigarette in the same hand as the Mr. Pibb while I pushed two Pringles into my mouth. Watching the truck, I saw two – now three – puffs of smoke come out of the open drivers side window. As the red tip of the cigarette glowed, I could see that the shadow behind the wheel was watching me watch them.
Tom* came out, glanced at me and asked, “Ready to go?” Nodding, I put the top back on the Mr. Pibb, resealed the can of Pringles – original flavor – and followed him to the car. Getting in he leaned over and unlocked the passenger door. Glancing back I heard the engine of the truck cough to life with it’s headlights coming on as I slide into the seat.
As we pulled out onto the two-lane highway I saw the truck in the mirror – doing the same. Tom and I chatted as we drove the 4.8 miles back to the spot where I had gotten in for the trip to the store. Our conversation about coal tipples, mine wars and The Battle of Blair Mountain kept us occupied while I watched the headlights of the truck behind us.
As we slowed down – it slowed down. When we speeded up – it speeded up. We would lose sight of it for a moment around a curve, but it wouldn’t be but a few seconds before we saw it come around the corner. Tom never mentioned the truck; I didn’t either. We continued to talk. For me it was like walking past the small graveyard at the Presbyterian Church on Halloween Night in the small Virginia town where I grew up.
Without slowing down, we reached the wide spot in the road where I was to get out. Tom kept going. I kept quiet until we were about 100 yards further down the road. I asked him, “Any reason we missed my stop?” “I’m not sure, but I think that guy has been following us – or following you,” he said as he jerked his thumb toward the rear of the car.
Up ahead was the first – and longest – straight stretch we had seen since we left the store. Slowing down we quietly watched to see what the truck would do. The truck came closer and closer. The truck finally got so close that we couldn’t have seen it’s license plate – if it had been daylight. At what seemed like the last minute before it could ram us, the truck swerved to the left, accelerated and left us alone on the two lane highway.
Going another quarter of a mile down the road, Tom found a wide spot where he could perform an almost perfect moonshiner’s turn. Taking me back to the spot we had passed, he stopped, we shook hands and I got out clutching my Mr. Pibb and can of Pringles – original flavor. Neither of us mentioned the truck or what had just happened. Lighting up another cigarette, I watched as Tom pulled back onto the highway and disappeared around the bend.
Opening the Mr. Pibb, I walked over to the front steps and sat down. Sipping my soft drink as I thought about the past several weeks that I had been in Blair, WV something lodged in my mind.
Southern West Virginia in 2012 is like – in many respects – very much like the Deep South in the sixties. Then you had a group of people – mainly wealthier, white men – who controlled the town and exploited people for the benefit of themselves and their friends. Into that mix add a group of “outsiders” who came in and started asking questions about the way of life.
Here in southern West Virginia, you have pretty much the same thing. There’s a group of people – mine owners and operators who happen to be mainly wealthy, white men – who exploit people, the miners and their families, for the benefit of themselves and their friends.
Any outsider here in Blair will be spotted quickly. Any outsider with long hair and a fancy camera will be spotted quicker. Despite doing my best to keep a low profile in town, word got around quick that I was here and doing a series of articles about coal and coal mining as well as the history of southern West Virginia.
Was the truck a coincidence? Or was it really following us. I don’t know and I’m pretty sure I’ll never find out. Whether or not the truck was actually tailing us – to me – isn’t as important as the fact that Tom thought it was. With a shiver going over me as I thought about what could have happened, I put the cigarette out, resealed the bottle of Mr. Pibb and tossed the empty can of Pringles – original flavor – into the trash can beside the door.
*Obviously not his real name since he has to live here when I’m gone.