On Clay County and the Census Worker (2 of 90)
Thing 2: Some of us are trying to raise kids here, and we’ve got plenty of cultural self-loathing to fight already, thanks.
— comment from Techno-Files, or Why I Learned to Hate the Coast
There’s a certain Appalachian small townie-ness that has come to the Web, a place built on instant communication, community and conversation. It’s subversive.
I know this because I’ve had a front row seat to the massive chaos this interconnected, hyperlinked world inflicted on business. I know this because there are scores of books about the phenomenon of conversation, of reputation, or goodwill on the Web. I know this because I’ve watched gigantic industries – music, news, television, movies – crumble under the weight of the conversations that happen online.
I’ve reported from the front lines of this transformation: at Wired, at Wired.com, at Technology Review. Yet it’s always struck me as rather pedestrian, this change, because it didn’t feel much different than what I’d been experiencing for year.
Where I’m from, news always traveled fast. Bad news traveled faster. Scandalous news was like a wildfire. There was no stopping it. You might complain about it. But people know your business. And no matter what you say about that little bit, you know their business too.
These are not traits specific to Appalachia, or to my home town in Loveland, Ohio (Clermont County for those of you who want to argue my Appalachia heritage). It’s disingenuous for anyone to claim their region is particularly different than any other region, although it’s certainly something we do. I suspect as you read, you’ll be inclined to tell me stories about just how much better (or maybe worse) your home town is from mine. And I suspect you’ll be right.
But if we’re kindly about it, you’ll let me tell my story anyway. Humor a storyteller.
This story starts exactly the way I hope no story starts. With an end.
Bill Sparkman, a 51-year-old Census worker, was found hanging from a tree in Clay County, Kentucky on September 24, 2009. Scrawled across his chest: Fed.
The FBI descended upon the scene quickly. The police from Manchester, a small town made up of fewer than 3,000 people, were not part of the investigation. It’s hard to say if this was a good thing given the town’s rather colorful history with the government, but Sparkman’s death fell outside the city limits so there was little that could be done.
I knew this soon after the first reports hit the Web because messages began pouring in from all over the world. My friends have heard enough stories about my Appalachian-ness, and particularly Clay County and specifically Manchester. While it’s not the American birthplace of my family, we’d settled first in Boston before making our way to Pennsylvania, Kentucky is where we finally – and continually – put down roots.
The name caught their collective eyes. They snipped, clipped and sent along reports.
Two very distinct thoughts went through my head that day: shit and fuck.
The shit was the reaction I expected from most of the country. Here those ignorant-ass hillbillies go again. It’s hard to get mad at people who think that way because I understand how they feel. And I’m from there. I’ve got a bit more perspective on the whole thing, I suspect, but even I can’t keep those knee-jerk reactions from spilling out.
The fuck was my thought immediately after as I started to question why there would be such a brazenly frontal attack on a federal worker. Even in the backwoods of Appalachia, the new millennium has arrived. While there is not ATM machine in downtown Manchester, there are also no hitching posts and horses. The Clay County War has morphed from open warfare to a Cold War. Even the methamphetamine and pot dealers along the Daniel Boone highway wouldn’t be that crazy. If you’ve ever spent any time around drugs, dealers and money, you know the last thing they want is the Federales storming the marijuana fields of the hill country.
Something didn’t add up, but that didn’t much matter.
Scandalous news travels faster.
Chapter 6 in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers is about my family.
In the book, Gladwell deconstructs the tangible elements that lead to success. To understand what it is that enables some people to climb higher in life than others. In chapter six, he begins an analysis of cultural heritage, the not-so-subtle life lessons that we teach our children.
He frames the chapter by discussing the events of the Clay County War, the 130-year battle between the Whites and the Bakers that claimed more than 150 lives. For the record, I am a Baker.
He discusses briefly some of the highlights of the War (including the end of the war, which came when my great-grandfather was gunned down on the streets of Manchester as he returned to the family home), but his larger point is one about the “culture of honor” that exists within the Appalachians.
This culture is one where you are taught to honor the family at all costs and above all else. It’s a hard-won culture, one that comes from living on the edge of society and on lands that are not easily farmed. You become self-reliant. Too self-reliant.
Because when you’re on the edge of civilization, there is no relief.
Murder rates are higher there than in the rest of the country. But crimes of property and “stranger” crimes – like muggings – are lower. As the sociologist John Sheldon Reed has written, “The homicides in which the South seems to specialize are those in which someone is being killed by someone he (or often she) knows, for reasons both the killer and victim understand.”
— Outliers pp 168-169
Four months later, the police released the final report about Sparkman. Turns out he committed suicide. A terrible, awful, and senseless tragedy. A man who, for whatever reason, had stared down into the bottomless abyss and seen something better than his life at that moment.
Actually his life for many moments. The police said he’d practiced hanging himself, preparing so that he could do the job properly. He wanted to make sure that his wife and his son, each recipients of life insurance policies, would receive their money. Be taken care of. Something that would only happen if he were murdered or if he died.
There’s little comfort I’ve taken in the fact that Sparkman wasn’t killed in my ancestral home. I didn’t breathe a sigh of relief or celebrate that my people were vindicated by the findings. Because there was nothing to celebration. There was nothing for them to be acquitted from. They were simply victims of history, both real and imagined.
And there was still a wife and a son and parents and friends who were robbed of something far more important than any slight felt.
Slights fade. Humans do not.