Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

February 16, 2014

Teachable moments in McDowell County

by JAMIE NULL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— — One minute I was sitting at my desk getting ready to tackle a project for the newspaper’s advertising department. The next minute I was holding a two-layer chocolate cake while fellow reporter Bill Archer dodged potholes on Route 52. The sequence of events took longer than described, I admit. But it details the abrupt shift — from a routine day in the office to an adventure in McDowell County rather accurately.

Plans were made earlier in the week for the trip to Welch. Reporter Anne Elgin, along with Bill, would make a special delivery to the West Virginia State Police Welch Detachment. But when Anne came down with the flu, I was the replacement. That is how I found myself holding on to a cake on the curvy roads in between Bluewell and Welch. I had told my boss a few days before that I was restless for news and stories for Lifestyles. She said, “Something will happen.” I surely didn’t expect cake delivery, but at that point, I was eager to get out and about in the two Virginias. So off we went, leaving pens and notebooks behind, just the once.

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It was lunchtime when we hit the county line. The smell of the food in the back of the SUV made my stomach growl in protest. The icing on the cake looked divine. I imagined the cake tasted amazing, as does most desserts made with chocolate. I texted with one hand until I lost cell phone signal. Then I turned my attention to roadways and our adventure became a history lesson on wheels. I was the student and  Bill was the tour guide. As he weaved in between the mountains, he pointed out the coke ovens along Route 52. Then, he pointed out buildings, some no longer standing, but others were still a large part of the community. I was no longer disappointed in my lack of cell phone service. I was learning something new.



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I am no stranger to McDowell County. It is the birthplace and childhood home of my mother. She was a Gary Coaldigger and a frequent diner at Sterling’s Drive-in in Welch. My great-grandpa John Coleman had a store in Wilcoe. The floods of 2001 and 2002 washed away the land. My great-grandmother Charlotte “Lottie” Pauley got married in the middle of the road in Caretta. My grandmother Gladys still tells stories of Saturday night dances with her friends. My mom’s family moved to Mercer County the summer before her senior year. My mom, her parents and her brothers packed their belongings, as well as their memories of Gary and Welch. Nobody in the family is a true historian. Families follow the same story-telling patterns. The older generations shares a way of life through their eyes. The younger generation nods their head and tries to imagine the same scenario.

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 I think the history of McDowell County belongs to others, people like Bill Archer, who make it their job to study and research and write it all down. Bill is my neighbor in the newsroom; his desk is next to mine. Often, when I answer the phone people think I am his secretary instead of the Lifestyle editor. I am used to it. I take down his message, but refuse to get his coffee. But Bill has been a part of the BDT staff for a long time. In a way, he is a mentor. He has guided me through plenty of stories about the coal mining industry and local politics. On that particular sunny, but cold day, he gave a history lesson better than a teacher. You have to enjoy moments that suddenly become teachable. Yes, I had things that needed to be done at the office. So did Bill. But I can’t say I am disappointed at the day’s events. I am always amazed at how moments become teachable in the oddest places. You can learn a lot riding down the mountain holding a chocolate cake with the right driver.

Jamie Null is the Lifestyle editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at jnull@bdtonline.com or on Twitter @BDTParsell.