“Learning English was kind of hard. When I was first living with my sister, I couldn’t go to work, so I more or less, had to babysit for her kids. I watched a lot of Sesame Street and stuff like that, and that helped me along. If you go to a country, you have to learn the language. If you don’t want to learn the language, just stay where you're from.”
Richard Vogel, Railroad Worker; Tiptop, Virginia, (Originally from Germany):
“I was born in a little town called Bad Vilbel, next to Frankfurt, Germany. My sister, she’s eight years older than I am, she met a G.I. over in Germany. They got married, and they were living in Bluefield, West Virginia. I came over to visit a time or two, and it might sound funny to y’all, but what really got me to come over was the trees and the mountains. Where I grew up it was kind of crowded, so I really liked that. I came over here in 1977 when I was eighteen. I had to finish school, and I had to promise my Mom I’d finish my apprenticeship. I took an apprenticeship as an office clerk.
We did have English in school, but you know I wasn’t too good. If you go through the immigration process, and you do it right, it’s not as easy as just crossing the border. For one thing, they would not let me work until I got my Alien Registration Card. Naturally you got to apply, do all the paperwork. The first thing I had to do, I’ll never forget it, I had to go to Pittsburgh to get a physical to make sure I had no diseases. So here I was. I couldn’t speak a word of English, got on a bus at Bluefield, and went to Pittsburgh. But I made it. After that I got my Alien Registration Card that allows you to work. You have to register once a year where you live, and you couldn’t run for president or anything like that, but other than that about the same rights.
My Mom passed away in 1981, and my Dad got real bad off. I had to go over there [Germany] to take care of him for a little while, so I went ahead and got my citizenship in 1985. I went over there and stayed with awhile. We got him squared away, then he came over here and lived with me a little bit, lived with my sister a little bit, and he’s passed on since that.
Learning English was kind of hard. When I was first living with my sister, I couldn’t go to work, so I more or less, I had to babysit for her kids. I watched a lot of Sesame Street and stuff like that, and that helped me along. If you go to a country, you have to learn the language. If you don’t want to learn the language, just stay where you're from. I still got my problems. The guys at work, they still kid me. They say always, the end of the alphabet, I always mess it up completely. But, it’s been good. Yes! I’m an American!
My first job was the Sealy’s Mattress Company supplying the ladies on the line with material to make mattresses. From there, I went to work in a grocery store. There was another guy worked in the store, and he was friends with another guy. We started going and fishing together, and this other guy’s Dad, he worked on the railroad. One day, we were going to go fishing, We all made it to this guy’s house, and the guy that works on the railroad, his daughter met somebody and they wanted to go out on a date, but he wouldn’t let her go out on a date, unless my wife, who was her friend back then, would go with her. So they picked me to go on a blind date. That’s how I met my wife. Then the guy’s Dad got me a job on the railroad. I went to work on the railroad and got married in 1980. I’ve been working on the railroad since 1980, our first young’un was born in ‘81, and our second one was born in ’83. And it’s been good times and bad times.
[Living in the mountains] gives you a lot of freedom, and a lot of it’s up to you what you make out of it. You can sit there and starve, but you don’t have to.
I guess it goes back to the history of the culture. Prior to the developing of the coalfields, this area here, there was nothing here. It’s kind of hard to really make a profit farming these mountains, so the land ended up being settled by the people who didn’t have the means to get much better places, and then they learned to make a living out of these hills.
You see all these people [who think us] Appalachians are all just backwards, hillbillies, or whatever you want to call it. We’re just people like anywhere else. All we want to do is be happy and live a good life.
You have people called hillbillies, rednecks, or whatever. I guess the only thing different from somebody here, and somebody maybe living in D.C. or something like that, we still live a little closer to our land. We still raise gardens. We still kill a deer. We still know how to cut it up. We still know where our food comes from most of the time.
The first thing I would tell [outsiders], we’re just like anybody else. It takes all kinds to make the world go round. These people around here, we might be a tad more friendlier than other people, and I hope it stays that way. Just because we’re Appalachians, don’t be afraid of us. We ain’t going to hurt you.
The happiest [times have been] marrying my wife, having my kids, meeting people and having good friends. Killing the first deer maybe. A lot of small things.
My sister, the guy she married used to work in the mines. He got cut off in the mines around maybe 1984 or ’85. They ended up moving next to Charleston, South Carolina. She’s going retire. He is retired, and they live down there. (Only family) That’s it. It’s me. The only time I went back to Germany was when my Dad was sick, and that was no vacation. It was trying to take care of him. [If I miss anything about Germany it’s] maybe the food, and maybe the beer. (Laughs)
My hobbies got started out of boredom. The railroad used to be real bad. Because I work in the maintenance and weigh department, we used to get cut off every winter. There we were, about three or four months sitting at the house. Nothing. No money. So I started getting interested in working wood because it’s abundant [and] you don’t have to have much to get started. Then, I started watching Roy Underhill, ‘The Woodwright Show,’ [and] I really got started in working in traditional woodworking. From then it went to volunteering at the Crab Orchard Museum at Tazewell. [I started] meeting people, and then it got to the point, [I started] going and camping out at the rendezvous. You see all this stuff, and you start getting into tanning hides. It just developed like that.
I do traditional woodworking, or green woodworking. It’s all done with hand tools. I like to make bowls, spoons. I made stuff like hay rakes before, shoulder yokes. I like to make stuff that’s practical in a way. I like to carve walking sticks. But you know, it’s just things like that, nothing fancy. It’s not really carving, more or less whittling.
Tanning hides is just one way of using something that would have been thrown away, for one thing, and another thing it saves you a lot of money. If you have to go buy all these hides, they’re expensive. So, you know, just do it yourself.
Deer hides are something, that once people know you do that, you get blessed. You get blessed with deer hides. There are some people below us. They love to hunt, but they don’t eat the deer, so around deer season you get a call. Alright, I’ll go get it.
I got some white tail deer. I’ve got some coyote. I got some fox. I do have a skunk, but I did not tan the skunk. I ain’t got my nerve up for that yet. I have an elk hide, and the way I come about the elk hide, some neighbors of ours went out west hunting, and they got lucky enough they killed two elk. They salted the hide, and they brought it back, and I guess they had intentions of doing it, but they never got around to it. They give them to a friend of mine. He knew I was doing hides, so he came up one day and asked me if I want an elk. I said, ‘Sure.’ He brought me two [and] I tanned them out. I gave him one, and I kept one.
I don’t sell the hides. I’m not a tanner, and another reason it’s too much work. Ain’t nobody would give you what it’s worth to do it.
The most difficult times [were] probably the times I was laid-off. I didn’t have any money. When we got married, we bought a little spot of land. It wasn’t but two acres with a trailer on it, and we bought it rent to own. Railroad unemployment didn’t pay much to start with. There was times when they was going to say, ‘Well you going to have to go,’ and stuff like that. It was real hard. [Another difficult time was] missing my parents. I kind of feel guilty for leaving them behind.
(Importance of preserving history) For one thing, it’s the children. The kids. And even the adults, too, but especially the kids. It’s not that we’re trying to convert everybody to go back to tanning hides or whatever, but you need to know where you’re coming from, to know where you going go to. You know, everybody says, ‘Oh, kids nowadays, they ain’t no good. They ain’t no good.’ They’re just kids! You can expose them [to history], and their minds ain’t spoiled yet. You’d be amazed how some kids you can just see it in their eyes over the simplest things.
I want to be remembered just as myself. Just as somebody that’s trying to be happy. I’m not going to change the world a whole lot, but I hope not too many people got bad memories about me.”