RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition. He does have an amazing PATREON, but also *normal* ARTIST WEBSITE too.

Thursday, July 27

[2k=0] Navigating the Mine Fields

(Worsham school, after years of dis-use. That door on the bottom right was the back entrance we used to sneak in as teens, with the room to the left our base of lounge where we had dragged in a few couches.)

As is normal when forced to accept dysfunction as integral part to what made you how you are, I’ve been contemplating the psychic mine field traversed, and wondering “why me?” in terms of survival. Been thinking a lot about a dude I grew up with who died almost two years ago, who I was close with in youth, but wandered apart as adults, as everybody who got through that mine field went their own ways to some extent. I guess a lot of them are more in touch with each other than I am, but my method has been to cross bridges and never go back. But this dude – SAH we’ll say – was public school kid like me. At the time we both started (late ‘70s?), Prince Edward County had three elementary schools active: a private one called Prince Edward Academy (open only to whites, and opened as response to forced desegregation in the 1960s), the Campus school (I think related to Longwood College training teachers, and most of the college – now university – staff who had kids sent their kids there because it wasn’t racist but also not public), and then whoever was left went to the public school. I’m not sure how the white demographics broke down, if that was class-based (the Academy cost a lot of money) or my folks ran with a mixed crowd or what, but I went to the public school.
SAH and I were not in the same kindergarten class, but from 1st grade through graduation, we literally had the exact same class schedule all the way up. We were inseparable best of friends during chunks of elementary school, and at least solid bros throughout, despite normal youthful conflicts from time to time which resulted in a couple of fistfights here or there. There were times where teachers would call us by each other’s name by accident, partially because of us being friends, but also (this is hard to explain) in certain ways we carried ourselves similarly metaphysically. I guess.
Anyways, the Campus school closed when we were in 3rd grade, so a new influx of white (and other) kids showed up to the public schools in 4th grade, an immigration of children whose parents didn’t support the white supremacist vision of the Academy school (which sat on the hill just above the trailer park my grandmother lived in then; used to go shoot basketball on their elementary school courts every day, with a mix of ratty white kids from the trailer park and black kids from across the creek in the old houses bordering the housing projects). This batch of new kids gave me and SAH a good chunk of who we rolled with the rest of our publicly schooled years.
SAH stayed at my house at times, and one weekend he was there, my folks had decided to go out to a party (which was not uncommon, nor necessarily an actual party in the noun form of the word, but more likely just the general verb form which was weekend mainstay of the mine field) so they dropped me and SAH off at my grandmother’s trailer for the evening. This caused a bit of stern discussion because SAH was black (which is more an enculturated way to describe him than reality, because he was light-skinned, like his grandmother – a wonderful, no nonsense old lady who raised a handful of her grandchildren).
[There’s an inadvertent theme – the hand grandparents, grandmothers in particular, have in raising children who come from the mine fields. They, by default a lot of times, become the elders who instill values in the kids, although often times that missing generational bridge causes the message to get lost, or ignored, or I don’t know. I was at my grandmother’s trailer a lot as a kid, and my younger sisters even more so. But the result of me and my wife attempting to recover from inherent dysfunction means my kids don’t even have grandmothers around, though both are still alive.]
By the time we all got to high school, due to my environmental exposures, I was synchronized to drugs and alcohol at an earlier age than most of those kids SAH and I ran with, from (I’m assuming) more stable homes. But I didn’t know no better, and I introduced my “good” friends to all the things I did with my “bad” friends, and inadvertently did my part at a young age to scatter more mine into the mine fields. Sterling was one of those folks. He didn’t drink, or smoke, or do harder drugs, but in the small circle I was part of, he was introduced to it. The first time he got high was in the shed behind my house, because we could all skip school and get fucked up there and there was a certain amount of lack of oversight by my folks that gave us the space.
Once we got to college, our paths split. SAH went to the local prestigious private school on full scholarship, part of their largest freshman minority class ever (it was 7), and I headed off to Richmond’s wonky public art school to get lost down fresh paths of self-induced chaos. I probably saw SAH less than a dozen times after that, but word had gotten to me through others about his bouts with alcoholism and other drug problems. I want to clarify here before I mention all this that SAH was one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He loved to read, loved to learn, loved figuring shit out, and loved to do it faster than anyone else. He had a sports-like competitiveness to his intelligence, which I guess I actually have as well, and perhaps that’s something that comes to smart kids who come from less-than-stable backgrounds who constantly feel like they have to prove their mental worth.
But SAH had those problems, which apparently was a multi-generational problem, and part of the reason his grandmother had raised him. One time, after I’d quit drinking already, I was down visiting my mom with my middle child, and we stopped at the gas station towards that end of the county. A dude that looked enough like SAH was in front of me, buying beer, so I called out to him on the way out the door. It was SAH, who was riding with him mom, and had been visiting. We talked for ten minutes, he got to see one of my kids, he asked about my dad (who’d been dead for a number of years, which bummed SAH out because my dad loved SAH in paternal ways), and I told him I was sorry about his grandma (I had heard she died a few years earlier).
Somehow, even though he was one of the smartest people I ever knew, SAH ended up back where his mom was from, in New Jersey, and whether due to personal demons or economics or racism or combination of all, SAH was unemployed for some time. When I google his name now, a linkedin page shows up that says he’s working in scrap metal due to long-term unemployment. Knowing SAH, he wouldn’t have been happy about that, and put that on his linkedin page as an aggressive call-out message to those who knew him. In that perfect storm of instability, it sounds like his demons were allowed to flourish, and drinking became a bigger problem. His younger sister was murdered, and then he was found dead a few months later, health issues. I can speculate it was related to drinking, but who the fuck cares? Specifics are not important in my opinion. The mine field got him.

SAH lived on the southern end of Prince Edward County, down the dirt road by where we all went to 5th grade, which had been a high school at one time – Worsham School. It was a white school until 1963, when, after Prince Edward was forced to desegregate, the school was one of four in the county that taught African-American kids. They were called black then, as black and white were the terms used, with white as the norm and black as the “color”. I still struggle with how to type those classifications because they feel clunky and I don’t want to perpetuate them, but they are an important part of what makes us who we are, adding or removing mines to our individual paths through the mine field. By the time we were in high school ourselves, Worsham had been closed down due to being outdated and falling apart, and we often broke into it on weekends to party (verb form) there. Many of the windows got busted out one night while a member of our entourage was tripping in destructive ways, and we did our best to add to the graffiti and trash inside, while not trying to bust too much shit up so we didn’t ruin a good party spot. Only in the mine fields do you eventually get to get fucked up and trash the abandoned building where you used to go to school at.
I lived on that end of the county too, and when we were in 5th grade, there were about ten of us maybe who arrived by schoolbus a good 45 minutes earlier than everyone else. The rest of the kids came in on shuttle buses from the centralized public school compound. The main school wouldn’t be unlocked, so we’d hang out in the cafeteria (an external sort of pre-fab building/doublewide trailer), where the old lady who ran the cafeteria who lived nearby would give us free breakfast on the down low. This was appreciated because all of us from that end of the county tended to be some hungry ass kids. At the end of the day, after all the other kids had been shuttled back to the central school compound, we again spent another 45 minutes in our little ragged clique. Paper folding arts were big back then, making ninja stars and footballs, so some fairly intense paper football games happened in this evening period across not-necessarily-heavily used math book covers on the floor. One of the other white kids in that little ragged clique came across my social media feeds recently because I almost bought some firewood from his cousin. That dude – my end of the county, same little group there at Worsham – has had pretty steady series of drug and alcohol arrests – heroin and cocaine, and social media pics show a heavily tatted up dude with the glazed eyes of one who gives very little fuck about the rest of the world. He grew up not far from where my youngest sister (and little nephew) lives now. Granted, this dude was a lot more out of control than me back then, in fact I got kicked out a high school football game one time covering for an act of setting off fireworks that he actually did. But I got blamed by my bus driver (who hated me… I was the only white boy on the bus, thus stuck out, and I guess earned his ire due to that, but I honestly don’t know why that dude didn’t like me) who doubled as sheriff security at football games, and one of the things my dad was adamant about teaching me was don’t snitch.
SAH lived right there but didn’t get there early with the rest of us kids. I think he probably walked there when the shuttle buses came in. That other kid with the ongoing adult legal and drug issues who played a thousand games of paper football with me, the mine field obviously got him too. But why not me? That other kid was as white as me, and he’s straight fucked (by society’s judgment). SAH was smarter than me, and way harder of a worker in school, and he’s dead. Why did I survive the mine field and they didn’t? Intelligence, privilege, skill… that can’t explain it, because there’s contrary examples to each.
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a combination of all that, and a complicated storm of reasons with blind luck being a pretty big ingredient as well. You can consider that blessings if you believe in spirituality, or chance if you believe in scientific method. But I had a lot less to do with it than standard American meritocracy theories would lead you to believe. That’s not to say I didn’t have to work to survive, but I used a lot more luck than work the first thirty-some years of my life.

The Worsham school, after we helped tear it up in our teen years, and after it was left to rot for a few more, got renovated in a weird example of rural gentrification. It’s loft apartments now, and the website highlights the one year it was an African-American only school instead of the previous 40 as all-white, or following 25 as singular 5th grade building in overcrowded and underfunded rural school system. One of the insulting aspects of gentrification is how derelict buildings are seen as salvageable and worthy of repackaging as an entity normal society could appreciate, with the right amount of investment. That other white kid who may or may not be in jail again right now, and if not is likely battling the same demons on the outside that will inevitably put him back in, does not have that benefit. He is just a derelict human, unsalvageable in the eyes of normal society. SAH, despite his natural intelligence, was not a good enough human resource, left to fester in under- and unemployment. He wasn’t worthy of investment either. That’s the culture we live in, and I don’t feel comfortable with it. I think that’s the hardest part of the “why me?” when you’ve gotten through the mine field with your dumb luck and ever-adjusting survivalism… I don’t feel comfortable coming out on the other side. These people don’t feel like me or think like me. But allegedly, I’ve made progress, just like that Worsham school that’s now expensive (by that rural end of Prince Edward County’s standards) lofts. Every time I drive by that place I want to burn it down. I’m not sure that feeling will ever go away.


n said...

I'm glad you're still here. I enjoy reading your prose. I hope you can finish the Hho3 and get onto dj screw. May God bless you and keep you and may his face shine upon you.

Raven Mack said...

might've shelved the finish of that one and put off the screw one forever. internet don't need more opinions.

Anonymous said...

Long live the memory of a wily Sterling. He will always be a smart god in my eyes.