Is it Too Late to Save the American Dream?

Editor Keith Pochick takes us on a very personal account of his family’s journey through the American dream.

A couple of months ago, I drove home to Appalachian Virginia to visit my dad.  I don’t make it up there as often as I should, and for weeks he had been asking me to come up.  He wanted to show me some places and tell a few stories.  I would have dreaded the proposition ten years ago, but time and experience can make us yearn to know more about our own history.  I welcomed the chance to learn and see more – to hopefully hear some echoes of the ghosts in those quiet hills.  I spend much of my life searching for meaning, so I decided to go and find some.

My dad is the son of a Hungarian father and Italian mother.  His grandparents immigrated to Appalachia to find work in the coal fields and camps which were booming in the early 1900s.  The poor of Southern Italy faced desperate poverty at the time, and I imagine the Hungarian peasantry was no better off.  Many Americans are surprised when I tell the story of how my immigrant roots wound through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia, but it is a very common tale.  The mines needed cheap labor; immigrants and slave descendents provided it.  In those days, the wage-earning class in the Appalachian coalfields was more diverse than most imagine – filled with African-Americans, Italians, Poles, Russians, Hungarians, and other ethnic groups.

My mother descended from Scottish and Irish farmers who fled poverty and famine to work the tough but fertile farmland in Southwestern Virginia.  Life was hard for her family of eight, and got exponentially harder when both of her parents died by the time she was about sixteen.  She and her siblings were taken in by aunts and uncles – “salt of the Earth” farmers in Tazewell County.  Like many in her family, my mom inherited a lack of longevity from her parents, and died of a heart attack at 51.  So it goes, to borrow a phrase from Vonnegut.  But this isn’t a story about heartbreak and despair – at least it isn’t intended to be.

The May Saturday I spent with my dad began when I awoke early to the sound of hammering and talking outside the open window of the spare bedroom of my dad’s house in Bluefield.  I had worked the evening before, and made the quiet two and half hour trip from Charlotte in the middle of the night.  I wondered what the hell was going on that early on a Saturday morning at the end of a dead end street in a sleepy mountain town.  Stumbling out of the bedroom I learned that, after 72 years in the hills, dad had given up and was finally having air-conditioning installed in his house.

“I guess you have suffered long enough, huh?” I remarked.

“I believe so,” he replied with a smile.  “Get some coffee and we can get going.”

Just in case it’s not clear already, my dad didn’t grow up with much.  He makes coffee which is only slightly stronger than water.  In the past my sisters and I accused him of re-using the same grounds a few times.  He always denied it, but I’m not so sure.  I chugged a couple of cups, brushed my teeth, and declared myself ready to hit the road.  We hopped into my Volvo wagon and I steered it over Dump Hill (no shit) into Falls Mills, VA and over to Pocahontas.  Pocahontas is now a dead coal-mining town, but it is where my Hungarian grandfather grew up.  Dad urged me to slow down and I made a right turn onto Pochick Avenue.  It was the first and only time I had seen my last name on a street sign, and the gravel road was as inauspicious as the name.  A couple hundred yards in, we slowed in front of an abandoned tiny green house which was overgrown with vines and shrubbery.  “This is where your Papaw was raised,” my dad told me.  I got out to snap a few pictures; below is one of them.  You can’t see the leaning outhouse in the backyard.  “They kept some chickens over there,” dad said as he pointed in front of the porch.  “Some Sundays they would cook one and get a good supper.”

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Next we ventured across the state line into Bramwell, WV.  “This is where the big shots who owned the mines lived,” dad informed me.  “The workers lived in squalor in Pocahontas while the fat cats lived it up here.”  Even today, it is clear that Bramwell was once rather wealthy.  While Pocahontas is basically a ghost town lined with the shells of hollowed out buildings, Bramwell’s downtown is still cute and quaint, and many of the homes are big and beautifully made.  Before Bramwell High School closed in the 1990s, its sports teams were known as “The Millionaires.”  This wasn’t a joke.  During the coal boom, Bramwell claimed more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the United States.  Those millionaires have long since died or left.

 I graduated from Graham High, an old and fairly small high school in Southwestern Virginia.  There weren’t any private schools within a hundred miles of Bluefield, and even if there had been, I can only name a couple of families who could have afforded them.  Back then, I didn’t realize what a unique environment and experience I enjoyed at Graham.  My athletic career was certainly lackluster, but my understanding of what creates a team was firmly cemented in those days.  Our football team was comprised of mostly middle class and poor kids, and about a third of our players were black.  My middle and high school years taught me that, although my teammates looked different, we actually had a hell of a lot in common.  This realization only came because we spent countless hours together.  We worked together, ate together, traveled together, won together, and lost together.  We learned about life — together.  I first tasted Skoal at 14 on a bus to a road game in Lynchburg; and blamed my nausea and green face on the motion sickness induced by traveling the back roads.  I never tried it again.  We poured out sweat, blood, snot, and tears in practices and games, and when we laid the grass and blood stained jerseys into piles and tossed the sweat-soaked underclothes into the laundry bins it was impossible to ascertain the race of the kid who had produced the fluid upon them.  Though at first blush it may seem like a disgusting sight, I found a deep beauty in it.  I proved to be much more student than athlete, making good grades and wining the occasional math contest.  College is not a foregone conclusion where I grew up — about half of the 168 kids in my graduating class enrolled after graduation.  I was one who did.

My dad guided me from Bramwell onto US Route 52, which carves its way into what is now one of the most desperate and impoverished areas in America — McDowell County, West Virginia.  After arriving on Ellis Island, his mother’s Italian parents found their way there in the 1920s when coal jobs were plentiful.  Upon disembarking in New York, my Calabrian great-grandmother became “Virginia Gattuso.”  “Virginia” meant nothing to Italians, but she thought the officials were asking where she was going instead of her name.  She carried the name until she died.  For decades, My Nonnie and her brothers and sisters called Kimball, West Virginia their home.  There isn’t much left there now, and we found the house they lived in demolished as we drove up.  We puttered around some more of the streets, finding the homes my dad’s aunts and uncles bought after they moved out and away from their parents.  Dad continued to tell stories and bring me up to speed on family scandals.  Trains loaded with coal were leaving the mine in Kimball, but I knew it wasn’t a sign of economic recovery.  Coal still flies out of the hills in Southern West Virginia, but the coal jobs are gone and they aren’t coming back.  Although coal production has remained fairly in the area, automation and mechanization mean that far less workers are needed to extract it.  As with many jobs in the age of mechanization, getting hired is more about who one knows instead of one’s work ethic.  While the coal barons are doing better than ever, far fewer wage-earners support the local economy, so the gloom and hopelessness continue to fester.  This isn’t a problem unique to Central Appalachia, but it is a deep, painful, and seemingly unsolvable one here.  In just over half a century, McDowell County’s population has fallen from about 100,000 souls to about 20,000.

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If you want to see the underpinnings of America’s opioid crisis, go and drink in the hopelessness and despair of Central Appalachia’s coal towns.  You see, addiction and overdoses in America’s inner-cities, Rust Belt, and coalfields are happening for the same reasons.  Bear with me for a bit of neurobiology – I promise to keep it brief.  Thanks to millions of years of human evolution, each of us is hard-wired to seek pleasure and reward.  Across a spectrum which spans incredibly self-improving behaviors to ruinous self-destructive ones, humans always find ways to pour our self-made dopamine into these reward pathways located in the subconscious brain.  Each of us is inextricably addicted to the feeling which accompanies the activation of these neuronal pathways.  An employed person with money in the bank activates her pathways when she looks forward to a vacation, exercises regularly, adds to her savings, or gains some degree of professional achievement.   She is stimulating her reward pathways through behaviors which also improve her health and possibly contribute to community advancement.  Contrast this with an unemployed, impoverished person concerned only with day-to-day survival.  He will also find ways to activate these pathways.  Since planning for the future and self-actualization are virtually impossible for him, he finds simpler, cheaper ways to experience the feeling of reward.  He does it with alcohol, pills, heroin, and gambling.  Deep down, he knows these behaviors will lead to ruin, but he is human.  He must have his reward, too.  Without fail, he will seek it.

Make no mistake, addiction and recovery services play an undeniably vital role for those struggling with drugs and alcohol.  But in impoverished areas, they are destined to fail when not reinforced with a solid government commitment to create an economy which works for everyone.  This economy must dramatically increase the number of jobs which provide a living wage.  Where there is widespread hopelessness, there will always be widespread addiction.

Our journey continued to Welch — a former boom-town gone bust.  My Nonnie and her siblings went to high school there, and she often told stories about the bustling streets, diners, theaters, and overall vibrant downtown scene in Welch when she was young.  I took some photos of the Gothic courthouse from the steps where unarmed miner’s union advocate Sid Hatfield was shot and killed in broad daylight.  This slightly less famous (but no less colorful) member of the Hatfield clan had led unionized miners in a strike and bloody revolt against the mine owners and hired goons called in from Bluefield to crush it.  Dad and I were getting hungry, so he took me to the Sterling Drive-in, which still slings out burgers, sandwiches, and onion rings.  It is also home to the McDowell County Sports Hall of Fame.  I saw a familiar face on the wall, and read about my cousin Johnny Gattuso, who was a ferocious defensive end for Welch High back in the 70’s.  Legendary high-school football coach Merrill Gainer was on that wall as well.  He influenced countless players and coaches from my area of the country, including the former Marine drill sergeant hardass I called coach at Graham — Glynn Carlock.

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My college experience at Virginia Tech was an indelible coming-of-age.  I made friends, learned to drink too much, and studied hard.  I relished the big school environment that allowed me to make A’s while remaining essentially anonymous.  Self-discipline and self-reliance became my most useful tools, and I don’t remember ever once going to visit a professor during her office hours.  The mere thought was terrifying.  If I didn’t understand a concept, I would read and reread about it until it made sense.  I got a job at a bar and then waiting tables at the same unpretentious restaurant where my twin sister worked.  A couple of steady girlfriends challenged me and smoothed out my rough edges.  My study time was extensive and important, especially after I decided to become a doctor.  If I didn’t get an “A” on a test or in a class, I was terribly disappointed and vowed to work harder.  Miraculously, an acceptance letter from Wake Forest arrived on St. Patrick’s Day of my senior year.  I was overjoyed, and though I guess I could have quit then and there, I went to work my shift at the restaurant.  St. Patrick’s Day was an epic party where I worked, and the rest of the crew needed me there to help manage it.  When our bartender found out I had gotten into medical school, he slipped me a couple of free celebratory shots of Jameson’s while I worked.  It seemed like a half-inch of green beer was covering the floor when we mopped up at closing.

Upon leaving Welch, dad and I headed over to Princeton, WV for a quick workout.  He had joined the pool and weight club there a few years before, and swimming had become part of his daily routine.  My dad can talk to anyone, and it seemed everyone there knew who he was.  When we finished up, we wound back into Bluefield and he stopped to show me the little dilapidated house he grew up in on Virginia Avenue.  It looked like it was going to tumble down the hillside any minute.

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Shortly after my acceptance into medical school, I experienced the sticker shock any small-town kid would get upon seeing a private school tuition.  I couldn’t fathom owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in my mid-twenties, so I arranged to meet with a Navy recruiter to discuss signing on.  On the morning two days before the appointment, the Snoopy phone in my bedroom rang.  Wake Forest’s admission office was on the line.  I had been selected to receive a full scholarship to attend.  The scholarship was both need and achievement based.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and I cancelled with the Navy.

I’m 41 now, married to a fantastic pediatrician, and raising two daughters.  Though I never enjoyed wealth in the first half of my life, things have turned out better for me than I ever could have imagined.  There are so many events which explain why I got where I am today, but only a handful of them relate to my own will, smarts, or grit.  Scores of outspoken successful Americans love to crow about how they “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps,” but I am not one of those.  I had a lot of help getting here.  My parents both worked full time jobs.  My dad was a salesman who called on any and every grocery store in central Appalachia; my mom was an elementary school principal who whipped my ass with a paddle of the same specifications as the one she used at her school.  The two of them established my family solidly in the middle class, and stressed the role education plays in creating a happy life.  I had some incredible, inspiring, state-employed teachers and coaches who encouraged me.  Thanks to tax money and the generosity of donors, I paid very little to attend a state university which provided all the tools and resources for me to excel in later phases of my life.  Because I was kind of smart and not at all wealthy, I was awarded a scholarship funded by another generous donor, and got a top-tier medical education for only the cost of room and board.  Perhaps most importantly, I benefited from the foresight and faith of my ancestors, who exchanged hopeless poverty abroad for a more hopeful version of it here in America.

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The  self-indulgent reminder of where I come from. 

Social mobility is typically a slow, almost imperceptible process.  In most instances, it occurs not over years, but generations.  I remember looking around at the faces inside the chapel at my Nonnie’s funeral a few years back when a beautiful realization struck me.  Though they were long dead, her parents had finally achieved the American Dream.  Their American children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren had become successful teachers, lawyers, business people, doctors, nurses, veterinarians, and salesmen.  The blood, sweat, and tears they spilled in those green and gray hills & hollers of Appalachia were seeds which blossomed into a splendor they couldn’t have possibly imagined.  My family was the American Dream all along.

I too, am the American Dream.  I am a combination of hard work, good fortune, and the generosity of others.  I was empowered by government visionaries who wanted young people to succeed.  They knew that kids like me needed clean water, healthcare, security, and a diverse education, and so they worked to provide those very things.

American government today has strayed from its intended path.  It isn’t just favorable to corporate interests; its legislation is actually dictated by corporations.  Citizens United doesn’t serve to unite the citizens at all — it allows corporations to buy votes and essentially write their own laws.  The Right to Work Act doesn’t protect workers’ rights in the least — it enables corporate abuse of the working class.  Working class Americans are being served up shitburgers billed as filet mignons.  Short of revolution, the 2018 midterms may well present the last chance for rank and file Americans to ensure that their voices are heard.  Autocrats, despots, and corporate kleptocrats cannot tolerate free and fair elections which could threaten their power.  Money buys power, and power changes the rules to cement itself in place and make more money.  American political and corporate leadership continues to lather, rinse, and repeat this self-perpetuating cycle.  While there are many critical issues and rights at stake in the upcoming midterms this November, a central theme has emerged.  Americans must decide whether we wish to govern ourselves, or allow international corporate conglomerations to choose our government for us.  This is a choice which will shape the lives of Americans for generations to come.

For me, defining the American Dream is simple.  The achievement of upward social mobility is the realization of the American Dream.  Success and abundance are not zero sum games — there is enough to go around.  Throughout our history, America has stood tallest when she fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves.  We won independence from a brutal totalitarian king.  We admitted an egregious mistake and vile human rights violations when we freed the slaves.  We used effective and ingenious government to pull out of a terrible economic depression.  We crushed the forces perpetuating genocide in Europe.  We granted greater and overdue rights to women and minorities.

Empowering the working class and disadvantaged is not communist ideology — it is American ideology.  It is past time for us to call out the selfishness, greed, and abusiveness which run rampant in Republican leadership for the character flaws they are.  At our best, America has always been “We.”  If the people unite, we can be that America again.  Together, we can vote Democratic and save the American Dream.

4 thoughts on “Is it Too Late to Save the American Dream?

  1. This is the American story for many of us. My family could no longer
    work the land in Puerto Rico so they came to Chicago to work factory assembly lines. They were never able to afford a house but raised 5 children. I always did well in school and expected to get an office job after high school. A student teacher gave me a copy of Lovejoys college guide and told me I could attend any college in that book. A nonprofit called ASPiRA
    put on a college fair and I got more information. Throughout my college and advanced degree
    years, admissions representatives, counselors, and faculty encouraged me. I obtained a degree in biology and went on to become a dentist. I came back to my community in Chicago
    and practiced for 34 years. I raised two children, both college graduates.
    I am saddened when I here people say they only want merit immigration, which sounds like no poor or uneducated people are welcome. Many people of humble means, through hard work
    and opportunity, will rise above their circumstances and excel. This is the American Dream.

  2. Thank you for this beautifully written description of the American dream. I scrolled back to my potato-famine family, crowded to the rails of a vessel caught in a storm, where part of the family was lost overboard to a stormy ocean wave on the way to the American dream. The fight to this dream is part of all of us, and we owe it to our history and our future to win this current battle about the meaning of America.

  3. Does this come to you, Keith, or to the last reply? Your blog was just priceless. I worked for several years in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia, and upper east Tennessee. The War on Poverfy was never fought with the right ammunition, so that made only a slight impact. You are right that we stand on the shoulders of giants; those who sacrificed their own dreams for children, grand children, great-grand children. I fear for our country. We have lost the vital distinction between patriotism and nationalism and, having lost that, we now tighten the requirements for the right to vote (our most cherished right) and restrict legitimate citizens from being able to vote out of fear that an alien might vote (and democracy is injured for greater by the former and not the later. Anyway, thanks for this journey back to a place I know well.

    1. Thank you, Uncle Tom. For those of us with roots there, Appalachia will always occupy a special place in our hearts and minds. It took leaving for me to realize what treasures existed in my own backyard.

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