Rebecca Atkinson

“September 11th, we were eating breakfast watching the news and it happened…the Pentagon was hit, and my husband was supposed to be at the Pentagon.” 

Rebecca Atkinson, Stay At Home Mom; Lanark, West Virginia, Born in Beckley, West Virginia:

“We lived in a small town, Fireco. We used to joke that you needed a passport to live there, because it was so far back. We were poor, like typical poor, but we had a good time. [Closest neighbor] was about half a mile to a mile. 

We had older siblings, but there was six of us younger ones, after they left home. We would just go out in the woods and play all day. We’d play with rocks, grapevines, acorns, swing from the grape vines and drop down into the ravines. Little did we know, there was jagged rocks there. Didn’t matter, we had fun. There were nine of us [kids].

Our dad had a chicken farm that we had all of the other animals, cows occasionally until they butchered them, pigs and raccoons. I had a pet raccoon [and] her name was Sissy. We got her when she was a baby. We’d get her out, and she was like thirty-five or forty pounds. She would sit on our shoulders and she was just like a big pet. She did not like guys, and she would scratch them when one of them would try to get her. We found it, brought it home and it just became ours. Dad made a big pen for it. One thing I didn’t know about raccoons is that they wash all their food before they eat it. So, we had to give it its own special extra water bucket so it could wash its food. It was litter trained, just like a cat. We had a squirrel one time that didn’t have a tail, and we went to feed it and my brother let it out. Our dad had a deer, Rufus. He would come around up until a few years ago, and he just quit coming around. We had ducks, geese --- all kinds of interesting stuff.

We did wear shoes, contrary to popular belief about West Virginia, but we only wore them to school. When we came home, we took ‘em off and we played. When we came in we always would wash up, Momma was always real good with keeping us clean. We had well water until it froze up and they’d unfreeze it and we’d heat the water on the stove in big wash pans. As time went, on stuff got better. 

We had gardens and we would work the gardens, and that’s basically what we would eat. Whatever we could grow and whatever Dad or the boys could kill was what we would eat. Because I was smaller than a lot of the other ones, I would carry the little bucket with the seeds, or I would help pull the weeds. All of us would feed the animals and water. Mostly the boys would do the outside stuff, and the girls would do more inside stuff. Mom could cook, but dad basically would cook a lot better, so dad would cook. He always tried to teach all of us girls how to cook. I didn’t really pay attention. I can’t cook. [Favorite meal dad would cook] I’d have to say brown beans and fried potatoes and corn bread. And then we would make blackberry dumplings in the summer time. 

[Soup beans] They would just soak ‘em overnight in water, and then they would put ‘em in a pot and they would just cook it on the stove on the pot and put a big salt pork, or a hambone in there or bacon, whatever meat we had. Dad would use every part of the animal. We never wasted food no matter what.

[Going to school in West Virginia] School was interesting but we were growing up with the same type of kids that we were. Not everybody had a lot of stuff, so we were never judged about what clothes you wore or anything like that. My mom always made sure we were all clean and had clean clothes for school. 

I didn’t know there was anything was different about the way that we lived. It never crossed our mind. There would be days when you’d be eating dinner, and half of the neighbor’s kids would all come and knock on our door and say like, ‘it’s dinner time.’ And mom and dad would feed half the whole neighborhood. We didn’t have that much, but they were always welcome to come and eat and share what we did have. If we were out you just knocked on [the door] of whoever’s kid you were playing with and you got fed. Or if you got hurt, they’d patch you up and send you home. 

We did crazy stuff that we would never let our kids do. We used to have the big fifty-gallon drums, and our land was never flat. It was a big hill that went straight down, and then over another hill and then straight down again and at the bottom was a pond. We would get in these fifty-gallon drums and there were six of us, the six smaller ones because it was after the older kids had left. We would wedge in there as tight as we could wedge. We would take them to the top of the hill and we would wedge in ‘em and we would roll off. Luckily, I used to always try to get in the middle, so we didn’t fly out. But by the time we got to the bottom, when it went over that last hill we were airborne, flying. 

Luckily, I don’t know how, but we never went into the pond, it stopped right before we hit the pond every time. There would be arms flying and legs. We would fall out, and then we would just get back in like we thought it was fun. We were crazy! If you went in crying you had to stay in. That was mom’s rule, if you got hurt and you came in you’re staying in, you’re not playing for the rest of the day, so we would stay out. 

One time, Andrew, my little brother, was playing on a swing set [and] he broke his arm. I remember I was out there with him [and I said], ‘don’t tell mom, you can’t tell mom.” He had his bone almost sticking out, and I was like, ‘I will fix it.” I tried to fix it and I think I made it worse. He went and told mom and they had to take him to the hospital because it was broke pretty bad. On the way to the car I was like, ‘you’d better come back with chocolate.’ We got chocolate when he got home. We didn’t get sweets a lot, but he was hurt so he was definitely getting something. I gotta say, he brought all of us chocolate home. I don’t know how he survived.

[My husband and I] were high school sweethearts. We got married and he was also in the military and we moved away. We’ve lived in a lot of states. We’ve been all over the US. He was stationed in Egypt for a while, so I visited Egypt and that’s a whole different experience. We’ve just traveled all over. He served almost fifteen years and they medically retired him [when he hurt his back]. He used to be a petroleum supply specialist, which he would refill aircraft or refill the trucks and stuff that they need. But, they would take him from the job he was doing, like all military does, and military spouses know this, they just put you to doing whatever they need you to do whether it’s your MOS or not. So he would do a lot of different things. 

When they deploy, you just hold down the fort; you just do it all. There was one time when my husband was deployed; he was in Egypt. It was during Christmas time and it was stressful anyway because my son was five and my other son was two. I was trying to put up the Christmas tree. It kept falling over and the whole time my little boy Robert, he was five at the time and he was going “if daddy was here he could do it, if daddy was here he could do it.” So I took fishing twine and I twined it around the Christmas tree and I staked it to the wall. But it worked! We had a Christmas tree that year.

A lot of people don’t tell you the struggles that you go through [as a military wife]. It’s hard when your husband leaves and you have to be mommy and daddy. And that day can come anytime. You can get a call and your husband can be gone. Like on September 11th, I remember that day clearly because we were stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia. He was flying out of Langley. He would do flights from Langley to the Pentagon, and he had been doing that for about a week. I was watching the news, and my son was two, almost three, and we were eating breakfast watching the news and it happened. And [the news] said the Pentagon was hit, and my husband was supposed to be at the Pentagon. 
Your whole world just changes. I think I called my sister in Germany, and I freaked out and she freaked out. I didn’t hear from my husband for twenty-four hours. I tried to go to post and they had the whole post locked down. You couldn’t get on, or you couldn’t get off. All the lines were jammed so I had no idea what was going on. Thank God his flight got grounded that morning and he never left the post. We were very lucky. It was horrible! The love of my life would have been gone. And I would have had to raise my kids by myself and I was scared. He just came home. He opened the door and I ran to him. It was one hundred percent relief.

[I’ve been back home] for five years. We got really lucky that [my husband] got all of his pensions and everything right out of the service since he was injured. So, we just sit home and visit family and raise our babies. I have a sixteen year old, he goes to Woodrow. I have a twelve year old son and he goes to Beckley Stratton and a nine year old daughter. We are lucky that we are retired and were able to come back. A lot of people our age are leaving because there are no jobs here. There’s not a lot of opportunities here. The cost of living is way higher than what it should be. It’s higher in this state than in any state we have ever lived in.

My middle son Chad, he loves the outdoors. We’ll walk through the woods and my mom was really good. She would tell us which plants you can eat, if you have a cut which plants you can use if something happens. Unless somebody broke an arm or a limb, we didn’t go to the doctor when we were kids. If we got hurt, our parents would just patch us up. Mom’s favorite saying was, ‘it’s too far from your heart to kill ya.’ She would say that, no matter what. You could cut your leg and you’d be bleeding and she’d patch it up and be like, ‘it’s too far your heart honey to kill ya, so go on and go play.’ And we believed it. We didn’t know that we had an artery there that could have killed us. 

A lot of people don’t that know if you are bleeding profusely from a cut and you’re in the woods, you can take cobwebs or spider webs or even pine sap, and put that on it and it stops seals the wound. For sore throats, they have this root that people dig. It’s called yellow root, and you just make a tea out of it and drink the tea or gargle with the tea. I still use that on me and my kids. You can chew the bark of the birch tree. We used to, because we didn’t get a lot of candy growing up and it’s sweet. It tastes like gum so mom would take us in the woods and we would chew it as a sweet snack.

I’d have to say I am a hillbilly. I think it’s somebody who can be resourceful on their own if you need to be. You have respect for those around you. You can be as back woodsy as you want to be, no shoes, but you still have respect. You have respect for those around you. 

You can make it on your own without anything. You can have absolutely nothing as long as you have your family and a means to get food, you can make it. You can be in the woods and you can survive, we could survive.
[Triumphs] My kids, I’d have to say my kids. All I want is people to know that I love my kids no matter what. Family comes first, no matter what. Just to love people. Take the situation, even if it’s a bad situation, and you can change it. We came from a bad situation. We were the poorest of the poor, and we rose from that. We made our life.”