I spent two summers of my youth working as a farmhand in West Virginia. There are kernels of truth in everything you hear about West Virginia. It’s beautiful, unfairly maligned, and is home to pockets of brutal poverty that most of us only experience through novels of Appalachia.
Incidentally, most people mispronounce Appalachia.
My summers in West Virginia showed me, for the first time, stark cultural differences from my life just an hour north in Maryland. This was great preparation for later venturing further from home. It taught me to view the way that others live, when it was very different from the life I knew, with patience and an open mind.
The work I did in West Virginia varied. I remember shoveling manure, bailing hay, slopping pigs, and killing baby chicks. It was part of my job, along with three other child farmhands, to identify the wounded chicks that weren’t going to survive and “take care” of them.
Note: In this instance “take care” means “kill.”
Aside from the cheap labor of underpaid tweens, the farm was run by a mother-daughter duo. These women were not soft, and in hindsight I can see they had the aim of making us less soft as well.
I failed at this.
I did not toughen and volunteer to behead chickens.
I cried in secret for the baby pigs.
Which isn’t to say I failed at my job. I worked hard, learning along the way that it’s okay to observe another culture while neither judging nor championing it. Farm life in rural West Virginia was not for me, but that didn’t necessitate becoming pro or con.
I got through it.
I shoveled manure with a smile on my face.
I bailed hay until my forearms were scraped raw.
And I refused to eat meat for the next ten years.
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Want to read a horror story about the worst of American culture? I thought so. Check out Only God Can Fudge Me.