“Just be yourself. Go chase what you desire. Do what you want to do. It’s only one life, that’s all we got.”
Jackie Lee Lilly II, Disabled; Elliston, Virginia:
“I was born in Beckley [West Virginia]. Mom and dad lived there about a year and a half [after I was born]. First place they moved to was Savannah, Georgia. Stayed there six months and then come back to West Virginia. Then, dad got a job with his brother down there at the truck stop in Elliston, Virginia and that’s where the car broke down and that was it. That’s where we stayed.
Dad didn’t want to be in the mines. I guess cause he seen so much death and so much struggle over the years in the mines. He didn’t mind the sawmill, but you know sawmills come and go.
Grandpa, at one time, had about 500 acres on Flat Top. And right before you come in here at the top of the hill, that was his farm on the left hand side. That big old rock root cellar, and that’s where they kept all their food during the wintertime. He’d plant potatoes and corn, had sugarcane, make molasses and kill hogs in the fall. Had a lot of sheep, lot of chickens. Always food there.
[At grandparents’] Breakfast was fantastic, supper was always fantastic. [For breakfast] You could hear them down there cooking, and it was before daylight. You’d smell the bacon and the eggs frying and the biscuits. There’d be a hole in the floor for the vent for the heat to rise up into the upstairs. He’d [grandfather] get up underneath them vents, and he’d holler up ‘Catheads a’comin’!’ And we’d run down there and eat. [He’d cook] Tenderloin, bacon, sausage, eggs, gravy, biscuits galore, tomatoes… it was just non-stop. [Supper was] Lots of green beans, brown beans, cornbread quite often, and pretty much there would always be some kind of a meat, ham or something of that nature. They liked fat back bacon, but I didn’t care for it. It was too salty for me.
[Summers were] Hot! You get up at the crack of dawn and that’s when you ate. You didn’t know when lunch was coming around, so I’d stuff my pockets completely full of biscuits and I’d take off with my two uncles or my dad and we’d head off out to the fields. It would be night time when you come back home, and that’s when you ate supper. If you got a bath you were lucky!
[On traditions passed down by family] A good work ethic. By the time I was 20 years old I was a workaholic. It actually started back before then. I’d work two jobs to get a little ahead of life. He’d work the farm [his grandpa] and he was a coal miner, so I knew that you could do it. Grandpa always had pretty good health. He got lung [problems] in the end, but he stayed very healthy. He was about 77 whenever he died [from] an aneurism or a tumor up there on the side of his head, and it killed him.
We were pretty poor when we first started out down in Virginia. Living in a little old small trailer, two bedrooms, my sister and me shared a room. We always were fed, that’s the Lilly tradition. You do anything to keep food in the house no matter what had to go away. I can remember dad not being able to pay insurance on his car and he’d jack it up, put it up on blocks with the wheels off so that the insurance company could take a picture showing that the car wasn’t being used, so he could get by without having to pay insurance ‘cause there just wasn’t money coming in. It was just rough back then raising children. And then my second sister was born, and mom finally when to work for Graham White Manufacturing. Dad he spent about 24 years in the meat factories at Green Hill in Elliston. He’d work sometimes in the stores and garages, these little stores would have garages on the side and they’d change tires and stuff.
I worked eight years in the meat factory first, right outta high school I was peeling logs for Shawnee Log Homes. After that, I went to work for Green Hill, spent three years there and then I went to Valleydale in Salem, Virginia. I spent five years there, so I had a total of eight years in on it. Then, I went to work driving a truck and hauling supplies to convenience stores. Got married when I was in the meat factory, went through a divorce and then remarried again when I was out on the truck. After that, I decided to get some more money coming in. We went down to see my ex-wife’s mother and dad, well, she wasn’t my ex then but she is now, but we found a Slush Puppy machine down there and I had been servicing them up here. The guy offered me $5,000 to make it up here for a year, plus the insurance. Well, I sold my home in Elliston, went down there and lived for three years [in Columbia, South Carolina]. Went through a divorce, got remarried while I was down there a third time and moved back to Virginia. That’s where I been ever since.
I owned a floor care company [and] I started cleaning floors. Got a contract on them, and just kept building and kept building. I’ve got 20 years in of floor care under Heavenly Floor Care Cleaning Service.
[On what makes Appalachians different] Pride… It’s family… a lot of what you see nowadays, people can’t communicate in their family. It’s just all nothing but hollering and screaming and stuff. And when you have nothing and the whole family works together, you get united. It brings you closer together when you have to struggle together. Nowadays, nobody has to work hard like that anymore. And people just don’t appreciate the hard work.
[On toughest struggles in his life] This disability I’m on. I was in a car crash five years ago and lost my home, my business and all of it. Lost everything. Just this past March, I lost my granddaughter in a train crash. A train hit my son’s car. He went across the tracks and got hit right in the side. It’s fortunate that it didn’t kill all of them. The car went airborne and everything. Then I lost my little girl. [She was] three and a half.
When I married my wife…my third wife, Wendy Lilly, that’s the happiest time of my whole entire life. She is the best thing for me there ever was. Third time’s a charm! She’s my world. We got two of our grandchildren that we’re raising ‘cause of the crash.
[The media] look at us [like] we’re backwards, but we’re not. The closer you get to God, the more you are on the straight and narrow. And the more you get away from God… well just look at Washington D.C. and what kind of a mess it’s in. Everything out there’s in a mess. Schools are in a mess; killings are going on. When I was in school, you didn’t hear about people going in there with the guns and shooting up the kids. That just wasn’t there.
I think [Appalachia] makes the people tighter and friendlier. I’m not saying all of ‘em, there are thieves out here and drug addicts, but the biggest majority of people in the Appalachian mountain area are good people. They are family people. They struggle from one day to the next, and some of the things are just not right, the way they’re treated by the government.
I love antique cars, trucks especially. I’ve got a ’53 GMC, a ’63 LeMans, an ’88 Formula Fiero, and I’ve got an old ’47 model International. That’s my oldies right there. [Love from cars came from] my Grandpa Lester on my mother’s side of the family. Grandpa was a foreign car specialist. He was always in the garage tinkering and I would just go in there and be with him. I loved being with my grandparents. I spent my summers up here, so I had two [sets of] grandparents I had to go back and forth from one house to the other house.
It [the garage] was an old barn, and he just blocked it up one day to keep it from falling over and that was his garage. It had an old dirt floor for the longest time, and [he] finally got to pour concrete and put in some concrete cinderblock walls. It was a pretty special place to me. It was a relaxing place. You could go in there, you could sit down and you could talk. Things were just straight on, you know? You learn things from the older generation and that’s what’s brought on a lot of problems nowadays. We’re losing our information that we had back in the years. People have quit looking at history. For some reason, English and math seem to be more important than history.
He [grandpa] loved Volkswagen’s and old Sunbeam Tigers. He liked a small car with a fast engine in it. He loved doing bodywork on them. It was one of his passions, and I just fell right in with it. My very first car was a 1960 Dynamic 88 Oldsmobile, and from there on it’s been oldies!
Couple of my old cars was held together with coat hangers! I drive an old ’83 school bus and it’s got my tools right inside. That’s what I drive around. My dad let me borrow his truck to get up here, that old school bus eats up so much gas I can’t get up here. I hate to throw things away that’s good. You know what I’m saying? And I think that’s also a trait of the hillbilly. They know they can use that part and that part’s not a piece of junk. It’s not something that’s useless. Them boys of mine, they can’t understand how I can look at nuts and bolts and tell them exactly what size wrench to use. ‘How do you know that?’ and I’d say ‘well it’s just years using it, guys, just doing it. Get out there and just do it!’
[‘Hillbilly’ means] just a way of life. It doesn’t mean anything bad as far as, you know, some people think you’re a hillbilly and that you’re backwards and that you’re dumb and you don’t know what you’re doing. To me, being a hillbilly is a pride that you just inherit by knowing what’s right and what’s wrong in life, and knowing how to get through life. Hillbillies are not stupid. Some of the smartest people come out of these coalmines. I mean, look it up. It’s a known fact that a lot of intelligent people come from this area. I don’t want to brag… that’s the hardest part for me! I try to stay meeker! That’s what the good Lord wants us to be, you know?
I’m trying to pass on [to my children] to be healthy-minded and take care of your body, cause it’s the only one God give you. Be proud of what you do, be proud of what you are. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Be yourself, plain and simple. If you can’t fix a car, don’t worry about it. There’s something out there you’re fantastic at. You might be able to operate on a human, and I couldn’t do that if I wanted to. That might be in your capabilities. Just be yourself. Go chase what you desire. Do what you want to do. It’s only one life, that’s all we got.”