by Kevin Cordi

Story Summary

In a chance encounter, Kevin Cordi meets someone others might classify as a “redneck.” Cordi begins a short conversation with this very pleasant man named Jack. Jack explains to Cordi about the nature of the term “redneck” and asks, “When did dirt and hard work become something bad?” In that moment, Cordi reconnects with and feels pride in his mountain heritage.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why are we reluctant to peel back the layers to get to know who someone truly is?
  2. Are there stereotypes about groups to which you belong? How do you keep other’s negative judgments out of your feelings about yourself and your group?

Resources

  • The Jack Tales by Richard Chase
  • Southern Jack Tales by Donald Davis
  • High Mountains Rising: Appalachia in Time and Place by Richard A. Straw and H. Tyler Blethen

Themes

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Identity

Full Transcript
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I’m Kevin Cordi.

Deep the Clay County mountains where the concrete becomes dirt, lies where I spent most of my summers in West Virginia. Usually I wake up with the sound of the rooster but this time was different. My Uncle Duke, Dewey Lee, woke me up at 3 o’clock in the morning.

He said, “Get up. Come on, get up.”

He nudged me over.

“What’s going on?”

He says, “It’s your turn.  You’re close to 15. You need to get up. It’s your turn. Every boy in this parts does this and you need to be part of it too. I want you to go and you’ll see cave walls and there’ll be chalks on the cave walls and I want you to follow them.”

I had no idea what he was talking about.

He said, “Everybody does this. You need to be true to your family name. It’s all we have. And this is part of who we are.”

So I sat there.

He said, “I’ll riles you up about midnight tomorrow.”

Well, my Uncle Duke has his own mind. My mother said he did adhere to the drink every now and then and midnight came. No Uncle Duke. In fact, two weeks passed and we were packing up to go back to Ohio and he showed up and I said, “Uncle Duke what happened?”

And he could not remember what he had said.

I felt like I missed out. I felt like I missed out on my fortune. You see that’s what my mama would say. My mama would say, “You missed out on your fortune just like Jack.”

You see Jack was this Trickster fella.  Trickster – you might know Jack from climbing up the beanstalk. But – but Jack, you know, he tried to seal up the Northwest wind.  And – and he tackled the robbers and my mama would say, “You missed out on your fortune.”

And she said that Jack came from the same mountains that she was raised.

When I was close to 15, Nathan always wore the best clothes, the best jeans and one day he noticed that I was wearing holes in my jeans and he looked over and he said, “What are you trying to be a dirty hillbilly?”

I asked my mom, “What did that mean? What did the – what did he mean when he said that?”

She said, “Son, I think Nathan had ever seen a holler. So, he makes up people that he doesn’t know. You see, he doesn’t know that there are poor mountain folk and there are rich mountain folk.  And it’s easier to make someone up than to see who they really are.”

Well. I don’t always listen to the mountain stories.

When I was about 16 I looked over and I said, “Mom I don’t need these old stories. I need to find a job. I need to get out.”

I was listening to Pat Benatar and AC/DC and I didn’t need these old stories. That’s why I got a job as a door to door salesman. I would walk up. My job was simple I’d walk down the street, cross the street, come right back up.  And I used to get lost all the time. But I still worked.

And one day I was working and – and the mailman came on a late night run. He noticed the door I was knocking on, and he said, “Don’t knock on that door. A hillbilly lives there.  He’s the worst kind of redneck you can see.”

And the only all the time I thought of hearing the name redneck was when my sister came up to my mom, and she was – when she was younger and she came up to her, and she said, “Come on. Could you pick us up in the back of the school?”

Because she didn’t want to them to see the 1977 yellow Ford station wagon because she thought maybe they’d think we were rednecks.

My brother heard that and – and my brother, he got a dilapidated old truck which was his truck.  And he was a trapper so we put in muskrats and possums and all kinds of things in the truck.  And he put on dirty bib overalls and wrestled up his hair and he pulled right up to the sidewalk and when he got up there he rolled down the window right next to Melinda’s ear and said, “Now Lindy that we gotta go – we gotta get soup on -you know, we gotta get the kids to eat here.  Hurry up now.”

My momma said that wasn’t right. She said, “You don’t make up people for who they are, and you don’t make fun of them.” She said, “There are better ways to – to work with words and people.”

And at about that time the man at the door was just about to open the door and that mailman said over his shoulder, “You know you need to get out of there. That’s just a dirty hillbilly. He had no damn good get out of there.”

And so that man at the door, I looked. He was wearing bib overalls and sure there was dirt on those overalls, and he had tussled up hair.  And I was a little bit apprehensive.  And he looked over and he said to me, “You ever wonder where that name redneck comes from?”

And before I could answer, he said, “You know it in the nineteen thirties in Logan County in West Virginia the mine owners would go against the miners but the miners would wear red scarves to say they meant business.”

And before I could say another word he said, “It goes clear back to the eighteen hundreds. For you see if you worked hard in the fields you were a sharecropper you’d get a redneck. And it was hard work and son I ask you. When did dirt get to be a bad name? You see they can tell stories from the calluses on your hands. Sure, I didn’t go to school or didn’t finish high school. But I – I can tell you thirty ways to tie a knot or how to kill a black snake or shoe a horse. You know son, I’m glad to meet you. Is there any way I can help you?”

And I looked at the man and I said, “You know I’m kind of lost.”

He said, “Well what are you trying to do?”

And I explained it to him and he said, “Just walk on out here and go where they’re laying pipe you’ll see chalk lines, chalked arrows in the road.”

I couldn’t help but think about my Uncle Duke.

He said, “Son, I’m really glad to meet you here.” And he shook my hand with this enormous hand.

He said, “My name is Jack. I’m glad that you’re here and is there any way I can help you? Do you need to come inside and call your mama?”

And I said, “No.”

I waved to Jack and I thanked him because I knew – I knew my fortune was back home. I knew that Jack had shown me the way.  I knew I had a lot more to learn about mountain ways.