Headed down memory lane earlier today when my husband showed me a non-profit video of a family struggling to live in the Appalachian hills. When I first heard the video describing the setting, my mind went straight to picturing a third world country. Instead, there were the familiar hills and shortly after the heavy drawl of the young man they were interviewing. There home wasn’t much different than a suburban tool shed. It did lack the vinyl siding and framed windows that frequent sheds these days. They also had no bathroom and visited a neighboring friend when one was needed. Their home was located next to the burnt remains of their mobile home.
It seemed quite unbelievable that anyone in the United States could live in such a situation. But I know first hand that it is true. I remember the days of envying my neighbors who had a trailer with electric and running water. To me they were rich and surrounded by comforts until I spent the night and the rat crawled out from under the stove. We may have been quite literally dirt poor, but we did the best we could to keep out the vermin.
Our kitchen was an aluminum shed with a large wood burning pink cast iron stove. That stove was amazing and had a reservoir to keep water warm whenever there was wood burning. Our “bedrooms” (we basically had a corner) were in a mid-size army tent along with a table and a pot belly cool stove. The walls of the tent were boarded up and covered with insulation to keep it warm in the winter. A piece of asbestos covered by roofing tin protected the insulation from the heat of the stove. And a portion of the tent roof had been cut away and replaced with tin roofing so that the stove pipe could exit the tent without causing a fire.
There was no bathroom. We did have an outhouse which my parents had built and dug the hole under. That was a lot of work, but I was grateful to no longer need to traipse out into the woods. We had a small tin tub we use as a bathtub. When the weather was nice, we could bath outside. In the winter, we set it up in the tent next to the stove. I’m not sure how often we actually bathed. It took a long time for the big pan of water to heat on the stove, and it was difficult for my mom to lift it down and carry it to the tub. Dad always washed first, then mom, and then me. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water” was unfortunately too relatable of a phrase.
So how do people end up living in these situations? For my family, my dad was insane. For other’s it was family land and life was hard. They did the best they could but struggled to just live let alone make things better. Some were veterans hiding in solitude mentally ravaged by a foreign war. Other people were from a line of family members who learned to get by on disability. I just remember it being a hard place with little hope. The men could either work really hard for not much or make a career of alcohol. The women were lucky to find a man that didn’t beat them. For me, my hope was to escape. And my plan was to do the best I could at school so that I could support myself and get far away from there.