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Rant #145
(published July 31, 2003)
Next to West Virginia
by John Sheirer

When I tell rich city people that I grew up in the country, sometimes they ask me really ignorant things—like whether or not I had sex with farm animals or if I'm some kind of inbred mountain man like the guys in the movie Deliverance. Cultural isolation is not just something experienced by poor country kids.

Although I had a mostly normal rural childhood, there are some very isolated hillbilly areas throughout the region. People in these places would buy cheap trailers to live in, tear out and sell the oil furnaces, then build campfires inside for heat. They had roving bands of wild dogs that had been rumored to carry away livestock and even unlucky children. And some people were related to one another in a few too many ways. One particular character was actually known as "Uncle Myself."

At a gas station in central Pennsylvania during a recent trip back home, I saw a set of twin boys who really were dead ringers for the banjo-playing hillbilly kid in Deliverance. I was reminded that Pennsylvania is a very complex state, with some big, sophisticated cities and lots of isolated farmland that has more in common with the rural American southeast than with nearby New England.

When I was in graduate school at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (in the town Indiana, in the state Pennsylvania), I was talking with the wife of one of my professors. She was a high school teacher who had just started her first school year in Pennsylvania. She was originally from New York State. When she and her husband were deciding to move to Pennsylvania to take teaching jobs, she rationalized that Pennsylvania would be okay because it was "next to New York." But after about a few months of teaching Pennsylvania kids, she changed her mind. "Pennsylvania is not next to New York," she said. "It's next to West Virginia."

As rural Pennsylvanians, the most popular target of jokes was people from West Virginia. Even Dad occasionally teased Mom good-naturedely because she was originally from West Virginia, calling her a "hoopie." But most of the jokes I heard from other people were pretty mean. I guess we felt the need to validate our own sophistication by targeting people we saw as even more culturally deprived than ourselves.

One joke I remember clearly from those days went like this: How can you tell a rich West Virginian from a poor West Virginian? The rich West Virginian has two cars up on blocks outside his trailer. Another one asked this question: How do you define a virgin from West Virginia? Answer: A ten-year-old girl who can outrun her brothers.

Ironically, I went to college in West Virginia. The first time I came home for a visit, I was struck by how run-down and depressed our farm and the surrounding area looked. West Virginia may not have been exactly cosmopolitan, but we weren't the center of the universe either.

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