The Reason the President Visited My Neighbor in 1964: A Tale in Pictures

by bryan maynard

I am writing a memoir. Here is a pictorial sketch of some of the background themes of my life.

In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the first National War on Poverty in America as a part of his Great Society initiative. He chose my hometown and, more nearly, the front porch of my neighbor, Tom Fletcher, as the site for his declaration. Tom was a single parent with eight children and he had lost his job with the coal mining company along with 600,000 plus other miners in the Appalachian region. This photo was taken one mile from the house where I grew up.

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Seventy percent of the county lived below the poverty line when President Johnson came to our town. Thirty years after the president’s visit (1994), 54 percent of my neighbors were still unemployed. We were the poorest of the poor, but we were too proud and too insular in our culture for the outside world to understand the dual nature of our learned helplessness and independence.

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In 1994, Tom Fletcher’s second wife, Mary, was incarcerated for the murder of their three year old daughter, Ella, and for the attempted murder of their son, Tommy Jr. Mary poisoned their three year old daughter in order to get the $5,000 insurance policy funds to feed their family. She got away with it until the Head-start program staff investigated the odd symptoms of Tommy Jr., leading to the conclusion that Mary was slowly killing her son with pain killers. This information led authorities to exume the body of young, Ella, whose cause of death had previously been listed as a seizure disorder. Tragically, toxicology reports revealed that Ella died as the result of gradual overdosing with anti-depressants. Mary later said she did it to feed her family and to save their distressed marriage.

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Below is a picture of the kind of place where was my father was born and raised. He lived five miles from the home of “Devil” Anse Hatfield, the leader of the Hatfield clan that killed as many as eight of the McCoy’s in the infamous Hatfield and McCoy clan wars. Violence was a way of life for all of us, and fighting and killing is a cultural right and threat for the average person in Appalachia. These conditions made all of us good poets, but ‘crazy in the head.’ Men and women to this day believe that they will likely have to kill another person in order to survive. In my own case, I grew up believing that I would one day have to kill my own father and he grew up in a world where he had to fight to become ‘normal.’ The whole of it was…

…A DARK PEACE

“As one storm is expelled,

Its place taken by another,

A dark peace twisted and felled

Seven generations of my fathers and mothers.

Basketfuls of shameless secrets,

Covered by provincial independence,

The ignorant pride of Appalachia,

Denied our wounds out of existence.

Resigned to lives of invalidation

“Loyalty” requires a silence that never stops,

And so it ends, where it all begins

The dark peace lying in a crude pine box.”

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An excerpt from my memoir:

“I grew up in a small house that sat on the side of a hill in eastern, Kentucky and on cold, gray days when there was no rain and it was cold enough to keep the snakes below ground, I would climb to the top of the hill near the ridge because of a cave I found there as a young boy. I would walk into that cave, but I would never go all the way to the back because it was too dark and too far back and I was afraid. Sitting there in the dark but close enough to the light from the outside world, I would read books like the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and I would write poems but I was too ashamed to let these words pass beyond the shadows into the light. And so there in the cave I tore apart the words written on the page but I left them with nature for I knew I could trust her to hide my secret love affair with words.”

Awake before gilded rays,

Crown hills with gold,

The frost salts leaf and blade and,

I hear trees singing in the dark

From that cave I watched the dark hills and the bucolic valleys write their way into the geography of the souls of my Appalachian home. We were coal miners and loggers and tobacco farmers and we were poor and proud and brutish and the whole thing was poetry to me, tragic and beautiful.”

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–an excerpt from my memoir Walking Out of a Cave

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