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In recent years, we have watched as the right has attempted to shred our country's social safety nets and all but destroy the New Deal. We've witnessed the return of the Gilded Age, and the resultant near repeat of the Great Depression. We've noted the desire amongst conservatives to return to the "good old days" when white christian males were at the top of the totem pole, and everybody else was shit out of luck.

Conservatives say they want America to return to "traditional values". But few people alive today know what life was really like for people before the New Deal. Our country enjoyed the greatest time of prosperity any country in the history of the world has ever enjoyed during the second half of the twentieth century. But let me tell you the story of my dad...

My dad was born in Malley, KY in 1913. As a young man, he lived through the Great Depression. He enjoyed a long bachelorhood, traveling the United States and Canada. He didn't settle down enough to marry my mom, who was 25 years younger than him, until he was 55 years old. We kids used to sit, transfixed, as he told tales about all of the places he visited and things he had done. Even in his 50's 60's and 70's, he ran his own construction business, and could work circles around guys half his age. To say that he was healthy as a horse was an understatement. What we didn't know was how his life experiences had shaped him...

When I was a little girl growing up in Knott County in eastern Kentucky, there was a family who used to visit us every week or two. Every single person in the Marshall* clan was mentally disabled--I don't know specifically what was wrong with them. They lived up the road from us in an old beat up shack with no running water or electricity, with an out house for a toilet. None of them were capable of holding a job or even driving a car. They used to walk up and down Beaver Creek, going from house to house begging for food, clothing, anything they could get people to give them that would help them out. When they came, all 6 or 7 of them, it was as if they would simply take over our whole house. But my dad didn't seem to mind. He would always dig up some food, or clothes, or something to give them, and would often have my mom fix them a hot, cooked meal. He always told us that they didn't know any better--we shouldn't get mad at them if they started picking up our toys and playing with them, or laid down on our beds to take a nap. He always used to say that you shouldn't begrudge somebody who was in a hard spot a little help. I had already started elementary school, and heard the jokes some kids, and even teachers, would make about the Marshalls. Most people weren't like my dad--they would shut the door in their faces and run them off their property.

One summer, we had a train jump the tracks right in front of our house--eastern KY has an extensive network of railroads that are mainly used to carry coal to various coal buyers outside the region. An engineer for CSX, who knew my dad (just about everybody in eastern KY knew my dad) came to pay him a visit on his lunch hour. While he sat on the porch talking with that guy, the Marshalls decided it was time to pay us a visit.

My dad greeted Old Man Dewey Marshall, the family patriarch, and sent my brother out to the garden to pick them some green beans and dig some new potatoes for them.  I sat on the edge of the porch next to one of the Marshall girls--a young woman really--who bobbed her oddly round head up and down excitedly as I showed her my new baby doll. We sat and played while the men talked.

Soon, the Marshalls left. The CSX guy turned to my dad, and said, "I don't see how you can stand having those dirty-assed people around you all--you know they all have to be on the draw (getting welfare)." He launched into a cuss-word filled diatribe that I can't fully remember, but I recall the words, "retarded" and "villiage idiots." My dad just sat there, smiling and nodding his head--I knew that meant he thought that fellow was full of crap. That's what he always did to me when I would try to lie my way out of getting in trouble for something.

When the man had left, I turned to my dad and asked, " Why does he hate those people so much?"  I knew from school that a lot of people didn't like them--but all I knew was that I always had fun playing with the girls, and they didn't seem like they were bad to me.

Dad said, "That feller's a greedy hypocrite that don't know his ass from a hole in the ground, Sissy." He left it at that, and I went back to playing.

That winter, the great winter of 1978, I remember hearing that Old Man Dewey froze to death in his house. I think my dad went and helped bury him. I never saw any of the other Marshalls again--I don't know what ever happened to them.

I mentioned above that he used to run his own construction business--he was mainly known for doing stonemasonry work, and even helped build Alice Lloyd College in Pippa Passes. By the time I was 13 or 14, he had started teaching me a little bit about the ins and outs of running a business. He showed me how he calculated wages for his lowest paid workers--he would call around, and find out how much it cost to rent a house. Then he would add the cost of food for a family, utlities, plus a little extra to cover "other costs." It didn't strike me that what he was doing was highly unusual until I got a little older--he used to say to me that it was wrong to pay a man less than he could live on, and even the Bible spoke against such a thing.

He continued to run his business until he was almost 80 years old. When my youngest sister turned 18 and got her first job, he finally cashed in all his chips and got out. He said that his time to work on this earth was done, now that we were all grown. When he was 85, he finally passed from this world. We buried him in our family cemetery, up on the side of the mountain from our old homeplace.

As a young woman, I realized that my dad's views on many things were quite liberal, especially for a man of his time. He was in favor of things like the welfare program, food stamps, and women's rights. He was a big supporter of unions, and despised Ronald Reagan.  I thought that perhaps he had been influenced by his lifelong friend, the late Representative Carl Perkins, who was involved in getting things like Head Start and the Perkins student loan program going.  They had gone to school together when they were young, and he used to come and visit my dad every so often.

But then, a few years after Dad died, a cousin in my family who was researching our genealogy dug up an old newspaper article from 1932. Accoring to the story, my grandfather had shot and killed a man, and was set to be sentenced to life in the penitentiary. We knew that somehow, he had manged to wiggle out of it--he had even served  as Sherriff at one point after that! My dad--or any of my other relatives--had ever told me anything about this. She consulted with several old timers in the area who were still alive, and learned a shocking story...

When my grandpa was younger, he was known as a mean spirited, hot tempered man who often got into feuds with his neighbors. At the time when Grandpa killed that man, my dad was only 18--the oldest of his brothers and sisters. My grandmother was very sick--she had just given birth to a stillborn child, and had suffered a stroke during her pregnancy. There was no way, back then, that she could have supported her family--in those days, there was no help for a woman in her position. She was too sick to even tend a garden to help keep them all fed. She was completely dependent on the earnings of my grandpa, and with him gone to prison, they were almost certainly doomed. There was no way a young man like my dad, who was just starting out, could have got a job, even in the mines, that would have supported them all. Wages for an entry level worker in those days were very, very poor--there were few laws back then governing wages or worker protections of any kind.

So my dad, knowing that there was no way he could save his mother, or his younger brothers and sisters, made a terrible choice. He went to the sheriff, and confessed to the crime my grandpa comitted. They let grandpa out of prison, and held a brief trial for my dad. My dad spent a year in prison, and was let out for "good behavior." I believe everybody knew my grandpa was guilty, but with a sworn confession on the part of my father, there wasn't much else they could do.

I understood then why my dad thought helping poor people was so important--and why he was so liberal in so many of his viewpoints. Why he believed in women's rights, and fair wages for workers.  He had paid a horrible price in order to save my grandma and his younger brothers and sisters. Not only did he lose a year of his freedom, he was also beaten by a prison guard that injured one of his legs--he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

If the social safety net we enjoy today--crappy as it may be--had existed back then, there would have been something available to help my grandmother, and he would not have had to suffer the things that he did. Today, a woman in her position could have at least gone to an emergency room for medical care after her stroke. There would have been assistance programs that would have helped them survive financially while my grandpa was in prison. My dad could have gone and got a job that might have at least been enough to help them scrape by.

Most people alive in America today have never been faced with the kind of choice my dad had to make. When a conservative says they want to return to the way things were...do they even realize what they are wanting to return to--a time when the loss of the family's wage earner meant homelessness and starvation for his wife and children, because there was NOTHING available to help them--it was almost impossible for a woman to even get a job in Appalachia back then, especially a mother. My grandma would have likely been condemned as a "loose woman" if she had even been able to work--a mother's place was seen as the home--there were no exceptions, especially amongst the Old Regular Baptists who dictated morality to the community of those times. It is utterly foolish to believe that returning our society to a time when the caste system placed women and minorities on the bottom, and white men at the top, is going to somehow "improve" people's lives. Unless you're a televangelist or work for some right wing political organization, thumping the bible while screaming about those "immoral" gays and feminists never put a bite of food on anybody's table.

When my dad called that guy who worked for CSX a "greedy hypocrite who don't know his ass from a hole in the ground" he decribed many of today's conservatives to a tee, especially the people who say they want to keep what they "earn" and despise the fact that a few of those tax dollars might go to help a person who is poor, or elderly, or disabled. My dad knew what he was talking about when he said, "You never know what's going to happen in life. Everything a man has spent his life working for can be wiped out in the blink of an eye."  They don't realize that despite all of a person's best laid plans, that disaster can strike any of us, at any time--and that is what our social safety net is for. It is a hedge against hard times--when you pay taxes to support those programs, you're not just handing it to some "freeloader." You're paying into programs that could one day save you or someone you care about from utter ruin. Perhaps they would like to see disabled people like the Marshall family be reduced to begging for their survival--and freeze to death in their beds because there is nobody around who will give them the supports they need in order to function in society. How would those people who argue against the need for services for the disabled feel if THEY were the ones who were unable to care for themselves, and they were treated like those people were?

My dad understood that it was immoral to expect a person to work for less than they can live on. A person who thinks otherwise has never stared real starvation or homelessness in the face. You can't have your cake and eat it too--as a society, we either have to fess up to the fact that either we pay all workers a real living wage, or we agree to supplement the wages of the working poor with public assistance programs. To do otherwise is to steal bread from the mouths of children, the sick, and the old--and to argue that doing so is somehow "moral" is the height of hypocrisy.

Show me a conservative who has had the make the kind of terrible sacrifice my dad made in order to save their family, and well, I've got a nice looking piece of beachfront property to sell you in Arizona. It wasn't the lack of social programs or a rigid adherence to some religiously based social heirarchy that made our country great--it was the simple and humble morality and decency of people like my dad.

* Some names were changed to protect the privacy of some individuals who were touched upon in this diary that may still be alive. If you are interested in researching the history of eastern KY, send me an e-mail. I have links to a number of old newspaper articles and accounts told by old-timers, including the story about my grandpa.

***Wow--thanks for the diary rescue--and now the Rec. List. I didn't expect that. I'll be up a little while longer as I wait for some motrin to kick in and knock this headache I have.

***UPDATE Wow--I just got hate mail over this! Some guy just sent me this:

Do you think that it's the right wing that is responsible for an attack on the safety net? How ?  Let's see all government expenditures have gone through the roof -but in the idiot worldof the Daily Clowns this means that there is an attack.

The programs are insolvent.  This is called mathematics.  Not a conspiracy, not an attack-there's no money left.  That's always the problem with socialism-you run out of other people's money.

It's the left that is attacking non-profits and charities the groups that actually do something other then squander tax payer money....You might go back to school and take an intro econ class. You won't post such idiotic nonsense you silly fool.

We are broke. The states that are brokest are all blue....Why do you think that is Genius?  Figure it out..

Hey, there, dude--why don't you go back to second grade...you're looking at the pennies thrown at poor people, but forgetting about the wagonloads of cash being thrown at Wall Street and wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Also, Magnifico below in a comment pointed out that I had the name of the railroad wrong--it was probably Chessie System. I just assumed it was CSX, since it seems like they have been up in the mountains forever. Shows I'm getting old.

Originally posted to tonyahky on Sat Jan 15, 2011 at 07:39 AM PST.

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