Rodney Ray Pennington, General Contractor; Cool Ridge, West Virginia:
“I am thirty-nine years old, and have lived here my whole life. [Growing up in the mountains] It was simpler than it is now, that’s for sure. Everybody was a friend to everybody. Everybody helped everybody, which is unseen these days even in these parts.
[Fun as a kid] You took a ball and a makeshift bat and you went outside and you played in the street and you didn’t worry about what was going on around you.
[High school] was a close-knit community. Everybody pulls for each other. It’s more of a family atmosphere than it is a school atmosphere. I played basketball, baseball; very active in all sorts of things, mainly sports. Baseball was my favorite, but I’m more known around here for basketball, even though my height doesn’t show it.
My senior year’s the only year that our local high school from this region has made it to the state tournament in basketball. It just so happens, it’s a state record for the largest crowd in West Virginia state history. We played the morning session and we were the first game of the session. But the reason that it was such a big game was the game after us was Beckley Woodrow Wilson, which is like an eighteen-time Triple A state champion, playing against Randy Moss and the team from DuPont.
Randy Moss was known as a football player because, you know, he went on the NFL, but he was also one of the best basketball players to ever come through West Virginia. My nephews and all those that were big into sports, they don’t believe me. You know they’re like, ‘you don’t know Randy Moss.’ And I said, ‘I didn’t say I knew Randy Moss. I’ve played basketball with him and against him and I know of him. We’re of the same age and of the same area.’ They still don’t believe me, so I got to bring out pictures. And I got to say, ‘See? Here’s the picture. I told ya.’
I went straight from high school to working in construction. My uncle is a pretty big general contractor in this area. I worked for him for fifteen years, then I’ve went out on my own, running my own business. [My uncle] did residential, we all do residential. We’ve built a lot of people’s homes in the community. We’re very involved in a lot of aspects.
It seems like the price of living keeps going up but the incomes don’t. Around here, we’ve always been behind, but we are even farther behind now. And the price of living still keeps going up. [It affects my business] because you treat every contract different. I mean, you just do. If you are dealing with an eighty-one year old woman that’s on social security, you are going to work a lot cheaper than you do for the doctor who’s making money hand over fist. And the people with the money are few and far between. But when it comes to your home, everybody needs one, and it’s got to function. It affects everybody.
My dad was a coal miner. I can remember as a little boy him coming home black, couldn’t see nothing but your eyeballs, and saying ‘don’t ever go in the coal mines.’ So, I never had no desire [to go in the mines]. I see how the coalmines come in and bring billions and billions of dollars out of the mountain, and then leave the community raped and poor as all get out. It’s all coming out and going somewhere else and then they leave the community in poor shape.
It’s horrible to even look at. You go to all of these smaller coal towns that once upon a time were thriving, and it’s falling apart. The houses are falling apart, the buildings are falling apart and there are no businesses there. The coalmine companies come in and took the money that they wanted, and left it as it was.
[How to help the economy here?] You know that’s a tough question, because the mountains is a terrain that you can’t just thrive on in every way shape or form. You got to find something that attracts people and attracts businesses to the mountainous areas.
But, the cold hard fact is you got the most beautiful scenery in the United States of America. You got the cleanest water and you got the cleanest air. I don’t know where you bring in businesses, and to what [extent] you sacrifice those types of things. It’s kind of a double-edged sword there. I think maybe the biggest thing is educating the young, not in a computer, [but] that this country was built by your hands. And it’s gonna take building by hands again because it’s falling apart. If it’s not easy they don’t want to do it. And I guess that’s country wide not just here.
[West Virginia in ten to twenty years] You know I’m a little worried about it. You either have money, or you don’t. There’s no in between, really, and the ‘have-nots’ are starting to far outweigh the ‘haves.’ All these smaller communities are so drug-ridden that it’s not funny. So I’m really not sure. I’d like to think that we’re still gonna be the same old place, but I won’t say that for sure because it’s really starting to take a toll on our communities, what’s going on. Seems like when people fall into poverty, then they fall into the drug use to forget their problems. And the poverty is becoming more and more. It just really is.
[I’ve got] three kids. [I instill values in my children] in family, Jesus Christ and that it doesn’t matter what you do, do it. Do it the best you can. And take pride in what you do, but also be of your word. Your word means more than anything. You can go and say a lot of things, but it you don’t follow through on it, it didn’t mean anything. So that’s my biggest thing, is give it your all and be truthful and honest in what you’re doing and realize that nothing comes easy, and if it comes easy it’s probably not worth it.
[My dad] doesn’t work in the mines [anymore]. He is in Charlotte, North Carolina now, because that’s what happens when the mines is done with you. They lay you off, and then you can’t find that type of money nowhere around here, so you gotta leave. [He’s been gone] twenty- two or twenty-three years, and no hope of coming back because the coal mining industry--- it’s a dog eat dog world, you know? You’re either useful to them or you’re not. That’s the way it is.
My grandpa was a Lilly and built half of this stuff here [at the Lily Reunion property]. He was a foreman in the electrical power lines. So he run all the power lines here. He taught family first and foremost, and hard work, which is something unfounded today. I’m not sure we teach our kids the same thing.
[I hung out with my grandpa] a lot! Fishing a lot, camping a lot but I can also remember working a lot. You was mowing the grass, you were doing something around the house, washing the truck. There was no ‘we are just going to sit around and play on the computer’ time.
[My other grandfather] had got to the point in his life where he was older and frail by the time I can remember him. He was in the coalmines, too. He had black lung; it’s a back-breaking job, too.
Most people think that you’re underground and you’re are standing up, but you’re underground and you’re laying on your back, back in those days especially. You know you’re in a three foot seam of coal, you’re gonna sit there and eat lunch. You’re not even gonna stand up to stretch your legs, so it’s got to wear on you after thirty or forty years.
[Media portrays us] as backward and maybe behind the times. I think the problem is they could learn a lot from us. [For example] that sometimes when somebody has a flat tire, you stop and help ‘em and you go on and you’ve made a friend for life. You don’t just pass them up and say, ‘oh I’m scared they are going to take twenty dollars out of my wallet,’ which is what you find in mainstream, you know everybody is scared of everybody. Around here, it’s really not the case. When you see somebody you say, ‘Oh look at them, that might be me. I might need help,’ so you stop and help them. That’s just the way it is.
[Hobbies] Besides sports and I’m an avid sports fan and, of course a WVU sports fan, as most West Virginians are. Hunting, fishing, love to camp and I like the beach. Though, when you’re at the beach you think about how awesome it is and then you can’t wait to get back to the mountain.
[Coming home from being away I feel] thank God! No other term I can use. And I’ve been many places in this country and that’s just the way you feel. I’ve spent time working in other places, bigger cities [like] Charlotte and I’ve worked in Columbus, and you don’t feel welcome.
You come to the mountains, and it don’t matter if you’re a visitor or not. They’ll make you feel welcome. It’s like, ‘hey, you need something to eat, here you go, or you need something to drink?’ You don’t find that anywhere else. They look at you strange like you’re a foreigner from a whole different world and you’re an alien just come over and it’s like ‘what are they doing here?’
(Creative problem-solving) I was building a pretty big house, and I couldn’t find enough help to get it done. We would spend most of our time making riggers to scaffold us up and not just us, the structure [too]. People were coming around used to using eight or nine guys, and there’s three of us doing what we’re doing and they were like, ‘how are you all doing that?’
All we were doing was using the resources we had. We weren’t strong enough to get it up there. We know we’re not. And so we’d just little by little propel it up. Not saying it didn’t take us longer, but I’m saying when we got done, it was just as good as it could be. It’s things like that and using simple little things that are around every day that most people don’t even think about using as tools in everyday life. Some of the simplest things are handy, and nobody knows how to use them.
When I went to Columbus, it was this past winter, and the temperature didn’t get above seven degrees for three weeks and everybody’s water lines were freezing. When you cut the water line, water would run out everywhere. These guys had lived around there their whole life, and they’re like, ‘Well here’s the problem. We can’t get it dry enough to get it soldered.’ And I’m like, ‘put a loaf of bread in it.’ And they’re like, ‘why are we putting of bread in it?’ ‘Cause the bread sops it up, and after a while the bread will dissolve and it doesn’t affect your water line. So they thought that was a hillbilly invention. And I thought [to myself] what world are you all living in? You all got frozen pipes everywhere, and didn’t know how to get the water out.
[Happiest times] Probably watching my kids. I got two that’s in high school and my youngest one’s eight. She is down here playing now. Watching them grow is probably the best times.
(How you want to be remembered) I was a person of my word, a family person. [I] love Jesus and my country. Beyond that, I don’t know, because I worry about those things, too. My brother is a United States Marine. I can watch the world news and when I’m watching ISIS, I guess it maybe affects me a little more. Like, ‘wait a minute, what’s going on in the world we live in,’ you know?
[He is stationed] at Camp Lejeune. He has been in the military eight years now. He is a combat instructor [and] he has been deployed three times. So you know each time he is deployed, you watch the news a little more.
I don’t think we fully realize what terror we are really under because it’s not happened yet. And ‘yet’ is the key word, ‘cause it’s coming.
I don’t think [hillbilly] means a backward way of life like most people think. I think it’s proud of your heritage. We can get on a computer and we can figure out technology the same as anyone else, but we can bait a trotline and we can skin a buck and we can go four wheeling on a Friday night. When you say hillbilly, to me it’s about simple things in life. That’s the way I view it. Everything doesn’t have to be complicated.”