To hell with you.
To hell with every greedhead operator who flocked here throughout history because you wanted what we had, but wanted us to go underground and get it for you. To hell with you for offering above-average wages in a place filled with workers who’d never had a decent shot at employment or education, and then treating the people you found here like just another material resource—suitable for exploiting and using up, and discarding when they’d outlived their usefulness. To hell with you for rigging the game so that those wages were paid in currency that was worthless everywhere but at the company store, so that all you did was let the workers hold it for a while, before they went into debt they couldn’t get out of.
To hell with you all for continuing, as coal became chemical, to exploit the lax, poorly-enforced safety regulations here, so that you could do your business in the cheapest manner possible by shortcutting the health and quality of life not only of your workers, but of everybody who lives here. To hell with every operator who ever referred to West Virginians as “our neighbors.”
To hell with every single screwjob elected official and politico under whose watch it all went on, who helped write those lax regulations and then turned away when even those weren’t followed. To hell with you all, who were supposed to be stewards of the public interest, and who sold us out for money, for political power. To hell with every one of you who decided that making life convenient for business meant making life dangerous for us. To hell with you for making us the eggs you had to break in order to make breakfast.
To hell with everyone who ever asked me how I could stand to live in a place like this, so dirty and unhealthy and uneducated. To hell with everyone who ever asked me why people don’t just leave, don’t just quit (and go to one of the other thousand jobs I suppose you imagine are widely available here), like it never occurred to us, like if only we dumb hilljacks would listen as you explained the safety hazards, we’d all suddenly recognize something that hadn’t been on our radar until now.
To hell with the superior attitude one so often encounters in these conversations, and usually from people who have no idea about the complexity and the long history at work in it. To hell with the person I met during my PhD work who, within ten seconds of finding out I was from West Virginia, congratulated me on being able to read. (Stranger, wherever you are today, please know this: Standing in that room full of people, three feet away from you while you smiled at your joke, I very nearly lost control over every civil checkpoint in my body. And though civility was plainly not your native tongue, I did what we have done for generations where I come from, when faced with rude stupidity: I tamped down my first response, and I managed to restrain myself from behaving in a way that would have required a deep cleaning and medical sterilization of the carpet. I did not do any of the things I wanted to. But stranger, please know how badly I wanted to do them.)
And, as long as I’m roundhouse damning everyone, and since my own relatives worked in the coal mines and I can therefore play the Family Card, the one that trumps everything around here: To hell with all of my fellow West Virginians who bought so deeply into the idea of avoidable personal risk and constant sacrifice as an honorable condition under which to live, that they turned that condition into a culture of perverted, twisted pride and self-righteousness, to be celebrated and defended against outsiders. To hell with that insular, xenophobic pathology. To hell with everyone whose only take-away from every story about every explosion, every leak, every mine collapse, is some vague and idiotic vanity in the continued endurance of West Virginians under adverse, sometimes killing circumstances. To hell with everyone everywhere who ever mistook suffering for honor, and who ever taught that to their kids. There’s nothing honorable about suffering. Nothing.
To hell with you. This is the one moment in my adult life when I have wished I could still believe in Hell as an actual, physical reality, so that I could imagine you in it.