End the tradition
Kentuckians share a rich heritage and many traditions of which we can be proud - but fox hunting is not one of them. [Ace's] report on fox hunting in the November 8 issue of Ace [cover] focuses on the food, clothing and rituals of the sport.
However, beneath the pageantry lies a cruel game in which animals run in terror for their lives for the amusement of humans. Whether the animals are killed or not, this activity is enjoyable only for the hunters, not the hunted.
Great Britain, the ancestral home of fox hunting, is considering a ban on this cruel activity. Kentucky should follow suit. We have plenty of other traditions to enjoy that don't involve hurting animals.
Charity begins at home. It shouldn't end there, but it's a good place to start. It's what my mom and dad taught me. It's what's at the heart of our annual Charity issue.
Growing up, it's a great thing to be able to admire your parents. So many memories from my childhood stand out around the holidays.
Like the time an acquaintance of my mom's showed up at our door after their house burned. My mom was the one who INSTANTLY mobilized the community - finding a place for them to stay, and clothes and shoes, and coats, and deodorant and toothpaste and even finding out what Christmas presents had burned under their tree, so she could replace them.
Or the time we went to Jackson County as part of St. Camillus's outreach program. I'll never forget meeting Ceil and Cody, who lived in a camper (not a mobile home, just a camper) with a potbellied stove in the center. Batman was playing on the black and white television next to it. I remember Cody steering me out of the way of that stove so my down jacket wouldn't catch fire. I remember that the bulk of the holiday "cuisine" we brought them was a case of baby food - because that's all Ceil could eat. She'd had most of her digestive system removed as part of her cancer treatment. I thought she looked about 75, but I found out on the way home she was 46 years old.
I came home filled with holiday spirit - really grateful and thankful - primarily grateful and thankful that I wasn't them. We were learning that terrible lesson so many mountain children do: that no matter how bad you have it, there will always be someone less fortunate that you can look down on.
But one of the most vivid memories I have is the Christmas my dad worked on Cane Creek, driving a back dump for Richland Coal. His job was much what the title suggests, consisting of backing up this multi-ton piece of machinery to within an inch of a 100-foot highwall and dumping the dirt over the side. He was (and still is) deathly afraid of heights, but he did it every night (second shift), for more years than I can count. His "coffee breaks" consisted of crawling off into a bulldozer track where he could throw up from sheer terror with some degree of privacy.
Of course, I campaign against mountaintop removal with the best of them. And I've seen the look environmentalists get in their eyes when they first get wind of the fact that my dad spent time as a strip miner. They look at me with roughly the same contempt and sanctimonious pity that might greet a confession that I'd been raised in a whorehouse. (For the record: we also raised tobacco.)
I'm happy to deliver sermons against the rape of the land and our overreliance on fossil fuels, but I always do it from the perspective of somebody who knows how hard that wind blows up there. I do it, remembering how cold my dad must've been on top of that mountain at 3 a.m., and how his legs must've quivered as he retched into that bulldozer track. Because that job was the only way he had to support his family.
And every day, on his way up to the deadlift, he'd pass this little shack - the kind you'd see in a Shelby Lee Adams photograph - a gang of children and dogs in the yard, a car up on blocks in the yard, a washer and a sofa on the porch.
He started to get worried as the holidays got closer and he didn't see a Christmas tree, so he got it in his head that he'd play Santa Claus.
He came home and told us what he remembered about the kids - how old they might be, what size they might be. Then we all went shopping. I picked out things for the girls, my brother for the boys. I remember some pretty red mittens, a doll or two, and a remote control car. I'm pretty sure there were even chew toys for the dogs.
We really got into it. I imagined showing up on their doorstep with all this loot - how they'd rip into these packages, thanking us profusely. It'd be great. The best Christmas ever. Finally, I thought, I had a handle on what the Sisters of Divine Providence had been telling us all along. THIS was what it was all about.
But that wasn't what my dad had in mind. We came home. We wrapped up all the presents. My mom added in container after container of her beautiful holiday cooking - her loaves of braided challah, country ham, a turkey breast, cranberry salad, homemade apple butter...
My dad put it all in a big box. He drove up to these people's house - alone - in the dead of night, Christmas week (hoping not to get shot or dogbit), and left it all on their porch.
The only way we know that they got their presents was that he saw them wearing the clothes and playing with the toys the following week.
My dad, of course, had been poor. Most of his life. And he knew a little something about charity. His side of the family had spent their entire lives avoiding it - along with the condescension that often accompanies it as the price of admission.
So he knew that how you give is as important as what you give.
You give in a way that's right for the recipients. You give in a way that acknowledges and preserves their dignity.
Reprinted, Ace, November 2000.