Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis - J.D. Vance (2016)
During my last year of high school, I tried out for the varsity golf team. For about a year, I’d taken golf lessons from an old golf pro. The summer before senior year, I got a job at a local golf course so I could practice for free. Mamaw never showed any interest in sports, but she encouraged me to learn golf because “that’s where rich people do business.” Though wise in her own way, Mamaw knew little about the business habits of rich people, and I told her as much. “Shut up, you fucker,” she told me. “Everybody knows rich people love to golf.” But when I practiced my swing in the house (I didn’t use a ball, so the only damage I did was to the floor) she demanded that I stop ruining her carpet. “But, Mamaw,” I protested sarcastically, “if you don’t let me practice, I’ll never get to do any business on the golf course. I might as well drop out of high school now and get a job bagging groceries.” “You smart-ass. If I wasn’t crippled, I’d get up right now and smack your head and ass together.”
So she helped me pay for my lessons and asked her baby brother (my uncle Gary), the youngest of the Blanton boys, to find me some old clubs. He delivered a nice set of MacGregors, better than anything we could have afforded on our own, and I practiced as often as I could. By the time golf tryouts rolled around, I had mastered enough of a golf swing not to embarrass myself.
I didn’t make the team, though I did show enough improvement to justify practicing with my friends who had made the team, and that was all I really wanted. I learned that Mamaw was right: Golf was a rich person’s game. At the course where I worked, few of our customers came from Middletown’s working-class neighborhoods. On my first day of golf practice, I showed up in dress shoes, thinking that was what golf shoes were. When an enterprising young bully noticed before the first tee that I was wearing a pair of Kmart brown loafers, he proceeded to mock me mercilessly for the next four hours. I resisted the urge to bury my putter in his goddamned ear, remembering Mamaw’s sage advice to “act like you’ve been there.” (A note about hillbilly loyalty: Reminded of that story recently, Lindsay launched into a tirade about how much of a loser the kid was. The incident occurred thirteen years ago.)
I knew in the back of my mind that decisions were coming about my future. All of my friends planned to go to college; that I had such motivated friends was due to Mamaw’s influence. By the time I was in seventh grade, many of my neighborhood friends were already smoking weed. Mamaw found out and forbade me to see any of them. I recognize that most kids ignore instructions like these, but most kids don’t receive them from the likes of Bonnie Vance. She promised that if she saw me in the presence of any person on the banned list, she would run him over with her car. “No one would ever find out,” she whispered menacingly.
With my friends headed for college, I figured I’d do the same. I scored well enough on the SAT to overcome my earlier bad grades, and I knew that the only two schools I had any interest in attending—Ohio State and Miami University—would both accept me. A few months before I graduated, I had (admittedly, with little thought) settled on Ohio State. A large package arrived in the mail, filled with financial aid information from the university. There was talk of Pell Grants, subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, scholarships, and something called “work-study.” It was all so exciting, if only Mamaw and I could figure out what it meant. We puzzled over the forms for hours before concluding that I could purchase a decent home in Middletown with the debt I’d incur to go to college. We hadn’t actually started the forms yet—that would require another herculean effort on another day.
Excitement turned to apprehension, but I reminded myself that college was an investment in my future. “It’s the only damned thing worth spending money on right now,” Mamaw said. She was right, but as I worried less about the financial aid forms, I began to worry for another reason: I wasn’t ready. Not all investments are good investments. All of that debt, and for what? To get drunk all the time and earn terrible grades? Doing well in college required grit, and I had far too little of it.
My high school record left much to be desired: dozens of absences and tardy arrivals, and no school activities to speak of. I was undoubtedly on an upward trajectory, but even toward the end of high school, C’s in easy classes revealed a kid unprepared for the rigors of advanced education. In Mamaw’s house, I was healing, yet as we combed through those financial aid papers, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had a long way to go.
Everything about the unstructured college experience terrified me—from feeding myself healthy food to paying my own bills. I’d never done any of those things. But I knew that I wanted more out of my life. I knew that I wanted to excel in college, get a good job, and give my family the things I’d never had. I just wasn’t ready to start that journey. That’s when my cousin Rachael—a Marine Corps veteran—advised that I consider the Corps: “They’ll whip your ass into shape.” Rachael was Uncle Jimmy’s oldest daughter, and thus the dean of our generation of grandchildren. All of us, even Lindsay, looked up to Rachael, so her advice carried enormous weight.
The 9/11 attacks had occurred only a year earlier, during my junior year of high school; like any self-respecting hillbilly, I considered heading to the Middle East to kill terrorists. But the prospect of military service—the screaming drill instructors, the constant exercise, the separation from my family—frightened me. Until Rachael told me to talk to a recruiter—implicitly arguing that she thought I could handle it—joining the Marines seemed as plausible as flying to Mars. Now, just weeks before I owed a tuition deposit to Ohio State, I could think of nothing but the Marine Corps.
So one Saturday in late March, I walked into a military recruiter’s office and asked him about the Marine Corps. He didn’t try to sell me on anything. He told me I’d make very little money and I might even go to war. “But they’ll teach you about leadership, and they’ll turn you into a disciplined young man.” This piqued my interest, but the notion of J.D. the U.S. Marine still inspired disbelief. I was a pudgy, longhaired kid. When our gym teacher told us to run a mile, I’d walk at least half. I had never woken up before six A.M. And here was this organization promising that I’d rise regularly at five A.M. and run multiple miles per day.
I went home and considered my options. I reminded myself that my country needed me, and that I’d always regret not participating in America’s newest war. I thought about the GI Bill and how it would help me trade indebtedness for financial freedom. I knew that, most of all, I had no other choice. There was college, or nothing, or the Marines, and I didn’t like either of the first two options. Four years in the Marines, I told myself, would help me become the person I wanted to be. But I didn’t want to leave home. Lindsay had just had her second kid, an adorable little girl, and was expecting a third, and my nephew was still a toddler. Lori’s kids were still babies, too. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to do it. And I knew that if I waited too long, I’d talk myself out of enlisting. So two weeks later, as the Iraq crisis turned into the Iraq war, I signed my name on a dotted line and promised the Marine Corps the first four years of my adult life.
At first my family scoffed. The Marines weren’t for me, and people let me know it. Eventually, knowing I wouldn’t change my mind, everyone came around, and a few even seemed excited. Everyone, that is, save Mamaw. She tried every manner of persuasion: “You’re a fucking idiot; they’ll chew you up and spit you out.” “Who’s going to take care of me?” “You’re too stupid for the Marines.” “You’re too smart for the Marines.” “With everything that’s going on in the world, you’ll get your head blown off.” “Don’t you want to be around for Lindsay’s kids?” “I’m worried, and I don’t want you to go.” Though she came to accept the decision, she never liked it. Shortly before I left for boot camp, the recruiter visited to speak with my fragile grandmother. She met him outside, stood up as straight as she could, and glowered at him. “Set one foot on my fucking porch, and I’ll blow it off,” she advised. “I thought she might be serious,” he later told me. So they had their talk while he stood in the front yard.
My greatest fear when I left for boot camp wasn’t that I’d be killed in Iraq or that I’d fail to make the cut. I hardly worried about those things. But when Mom, Lindsay, and Aunt Wee drove me to the bus that would take me to the airport and on to boot camp from there, I imagined my life four years later. And I saw a world without my grandmother in it. Something inside me knew that she wouldn’t survive my time in the Marines. I’d never come home again, at least not permanently. Home was Middletown with Mamaw in it. And by the time I finished with the Marines, Mamaw would be gone.
Marine Corps boot camp lasts thirteen weeks, each with a new training focus. The night I arrived in Parris Island, South Carolina, an angry drill instructor greeted my group as we disembarked from the plane. He ordered us onto a bus; after a short trip, another drill instructor ordered us off the bus and onto the famed “yellow footprints.” Over the next six hours, I was poked and prodded by medical personnel, assigned equipment and uniforms, and lost all of my hair. We were allowed one phone call, so I naturally called Mamaw and read off of the card they gave me: “I have arrived safely at Parris Island. I will send my address soon. Goodbye.” “Wait, you little shithead. Are you okay?” “Sorry, Mamaw, can’t talk. But yes, I’m okay. I’ll write as soon as I can.” The drill instructor, overhearing my two extra lines of conversation, asked sarcastically whether I’d made enough time “for her to tell you a fucking story.” That was the first day.
There are no phone calls in boot camp. I was allowed only one, to call Lindsay when her half brother died. I realized, through letters, how much my family loved me. While most other recruits—that’s what they called us; we had to earn the title “marine” by completing the rigors of boot camp—received a letter every day or two, I sometimes received a half dozen each night. Mamaw wrote every day, sometimes several times, offering extended thoughts on what was wrong with the world in some and few-sentence streams of consciousness in others. Most of all, Mamaw wanted to know how my days were going and reassure me. Recruiters told families that what most of us needed were words of encouragement, and Mamaw delivered that in spades. As I struggled with screaming drill instructors and physical fitness routines that pushed my out-of-shape body to its limits, I read every day that Mamaw was proud of me, that she loved me, and that she knew I wouldn’t give up. Thanks to either my wisdom or inherited hoarder tendencies, I managed to keep nearly every one of the letters I received from my family.
Many of them shed an interesting light on the home I left behind. A letter from Mom, asking me what I might need and telling me how proud she is of me. “I was babysitting [Lindsay’s kids],” she reports. “They played with slugs outside. They squeezed one and killed it. But I threw it away and told them they didn’t because Kam got a little upset, thinking he killed it.” This is Mom at her best: loving and funny, a woman who delighted in her grandchildren. In the same letter, a reference to Greg, likely a boyfriend who has since disappeared from my memory. And an insight into our sense of normalcy: “Mandy’s husband Terry,” she starts, referencing a friend of hers, “was arrested on a probation violation and sent to prison. So they are all doing OK.”
Lindsay also wrote often, sending multiple letters in the same envelope, each on a different-colored piece of paper, with instructions on the back—“Read this one second; this is the last one.” Every single letter contained some reference to her kids. I learned of my oldest niece’s successful potty training; my nephew’s soccer matches; my younger niece’s early smiles and first efforts to reach for things. After a lifetime of shared triumphs and tragedies, we both adored her kids more than anything else. Almost all of the letters I sent home asked her to “kiss the babies and tell them that I love them.”
Cut off for the first time from home and family, I learned a lot about myself and my culture. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the military is not a landing spot for low-income kids with no other options. The sixty-nine members of my boot camp platoon included black, white, and Hispanic kids; rich kids from upstate New York and poor kids from West Virginia; Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and even a few atheists.
I was naturally drawn to those like me. “The person I talk to most,” I wrote to my family in my first letter home, “is from Leslie County, Kentucky. He talks like he’s from Jackson. I was telling him how much bullshit it was that Catholics got all the free time they did. They get it because of the way the church schedule works. He is definitely a country kid, ’cause he said, ‘What’s a Catholic?’ And I told him that it was just another form of Christianity, and he said, ‘I might have to try that out.’” Mamaw understood precisely where he came from. “Down in that part of Kentucky, everybody’s a snake handler,” she wrote back, only partially joking.
During my time away, Mamaw showed vulnerability that I’d never seen before. Whenever she received a letter from me, she would call my aunt or sister, demanding that someone come to her house immediately and interpret my chicken scratch. “I love you a big bunch and I miss you a bunch I forget you aren’t here I think you will come down the stairs and I can holler at you it is just a feeling you aren’t really gone. My hands hurt today that arthritis I guess. . . . I’ll go for now write more later love you please take care.” Mamaw’s letters never contained the necessary punctuation and always included some articles, usually from Reader’s Digest, to occupy my time.
She could still be classic Mamaw: mean and ferociously loyal. About a month into my training, I had a nasty exchange with a drill instructor, who took me aside for a half hour, forcing me to alternate jumping jacks, sit-ups, and short sprints until I was completely exhausted. It was par for the course in boot camp, something nearly everyone faced at one point or another. If anything, I was lucky to have avoided it for so long. “Dearest J.D.,” Mamaw wrote when she learned of the incident, “I must say I have been waiting for them dick face bastards to start on you—and now they have. Words aren’t invented to describe how they piss me off. . . . You just keep on doing the best you can do and keep thinking about this stupid asshole with an IQ of 2 thinking he is Bobby bad ass but he wears girls underwear. I hate all of them.” When I read that outburst, I figured Mamaw had gotten it all off her chest. But the next day, she had more to say: “Hello sweet heart all I can think about is them dicks screaming at you that is my job not them fuckers. Just kidding I know you will be what ever you want to be because you are smart something they aren’t and they know it I hate them all really hate their guts. Screaming is part of the game they play . . . you carry on as best you can you will come out ahead.” I had the meanest old hillbilly staunchly in my corner, even if she was hundreds of miles away.
In boot camp, mealtime is a marvel of efficiency. You walk through a cafeteria line, holding your tray for the service staff. They drop all of the day’s offerings on your plate, both because you’re afraid to speak up about your least favorite items and because you’re so hungry that you’d gladly eat a dead horse. You sit down, and without looking at your plate (that would be unprofessional) or moving your head (that would also be unprofessional), you shovel food into your mouth until you’re told to stop. The entire process takes no longer than eight minutes, and if you’re not quite full by the end, you certainly suffer from indigestion (which feels about the same).
The only discretionary part of the exercise is dessert, set aside on small plates at the end of the assembly line. During the first meal of boot camp, I grabbed the offered piece of cake and marched to my seat. If nothing else tastes good, I thought, this cake shall certainly be the exception. Then my drill instructor, a skinny white man with a Tennessee twang, stepped in front of me. He looked me up and down with his small, intense eyes and offered a query: “You really need that cake, don’t you, fat-ass?” I prepared to answer, but the question was apparently rhetorical, as he smacked the cake out of my hands and moved on to his next victim. I never grabbed the cake again.
There was an important lesson here, but not one about food or self-control or nutrition. If you’d told me that I’d react to such an insult by cleaning up the cake and heading back to my seat, I’d never have believed you. The trials of my youth instilled a debilitating self-doubt. Instead of congratulating myself on having overcome some obstacles, I worried that I’d be overcome by the next ones. Marine Corps boot camp, with its barrage of challenges big and small, began to teach me I had underestimated myself.
Marine Corps boot camp is set up as a life-defining challenge. From the day you arrive, no one calls you by your first name. You’re not allowed to say “I” because you’re taught to mistrust your own individuality. Every question begins with “This recruit”—This recruit needs to use the head (the bathroom); This recruit needs to visit the corpsman (the doctor). The few idiots who arrive at boot camp with Marine Corps tattoos are mercilessly berated. At every turn, recruits are reminded that they are worthless until they finish boot camp and earn the title “marine.” Our platoon started with eighty-three, and by the time we finished, sixty-nine remained. Those who dropped out—mostly for medical reasons—served to reinforce the worthiness of the challenge.
Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.
The day I graduated from boot camp was the proudest of my life. An entire crew of hillbillies showed up for my graduation—eighteen in total—including Mamaw, sitting in a wheelchair, buried underneath a few blankets, looking frailer than I remembered. I showed everyone around base, feeling like I had just won the lottery, and when I was released for a ten-day leave the next day, we caravanned back to Middletown.
On my first day home from boot camp, I walked into the barbershop of my grandfather’s old friend. Marines have to keep their hair short, and I didn’t want to slack just because no one was watching. For the first time, the corner barber—a dying breed even though I didn’t know it at the time—greeted me as an adult. I sat in his chair, told some dirty jokes (most of which I’d learned only weeks earlier), and shared some boot camp stories. When he was about my age, he was drafted into the army to fight in Korea, so we traded some barbs about the Army and the Marines. After the haircut, he refused to take my money and told me to stay safe. He’d cut my hair before, and I’d walked by his shop nearly every day for eighteen years. Yet it was the first time he’d ever shaken my hand and treated me as an equal.
I had a lot of those experiences shortly after boot camp. In those first days as a marine—all spent in Middletown—every interaction was a revelation. I’d shed forty-five pounds, so many of the people I knew barely recognized me. My friend Nate—who would later serve as one of my groomsmen—did a double take when I extended my hand at a local mall. Perhaps I carried myself a little differently. My old hometown seemed to think so.
The new perspective went both ways. Many of the foods that I ate once now violated the fitness standards of a marine. In Mamaw’s house, everything was fried—chicken, pickles, tomatoes. That bologna sandwich on toast with crumbled potato chips as topping no longer appeared healthy. Blackberry cobbler, once considered as healthy as any dish built around fruit (blackberries) and grains (flour), lost its luster. I began asking questions I’d never asked before: Is there added sugar? Does this meat have a lot of saturated fat? How much salt? It was just food, but I was already realizing that I’d never look at Middletown the same way again. In a few short months, the Marine Corps had already changed my perspective.
I soon left home for a permanent assignment in the Marine Corps, and life at home continued on apace. I tried to return as often as I could, and with long weekends and generous Marine Corps leave, I usually saw my family every few months. The kids looked a bit bigger every time I saw them, and Mom moved in with Mamaw not long after I left for boot camp, though she didn’t plan to stay. Mamaw’s health seemed to improve: She was walking better and even putting on a bit of weight. Lindsay and Aunt Wee, as well as their families, were healthy and happy. My greatest fear before I left was that some tragedy would befall my family while I was away, and I’d be unable to help. Luckily, that wasn’t happening.
In January 2005, I learned that my unit would head to Iraq a few months later. I was both excited and nervous. Mamaw fell silent when I called to tell her. After a few uncomfortable seconds of dead air, she said only that she hoped the war would end before I had to leave. Though we spoke on the phone every few days, we never spoke of Iraq, even as winter turned to spring and everyone knew I’d be leaving for war that summer. I could tell that Mamaw didn’t want to talk or think about it, and I obliged.
Mamaw was old, frail, and sick. I no longer lived with her, and I was preparing to go fight a war. Though her health had improved somewhat since I’d left for the Marines, she still took a dozen medications and made quarterly trips to the hospital for various ailments. When AK Steel—which provided health care for Mamaw as Papaw’s widow—announced that they were increasing her premiums, Mamaw simply couldn’t afford them. She barely survived as it was, and she needed three hundred dollars extra per month. She told me as much one day, and I immediately volunteered to cover the costs. She had never accepted anything from me—not money from my paycheck at Dillman’s; not a share of my boot camp earnings. But she accepted my three hundred a month, and that’s how I knew she was desperate.
I didn’t make a lot of money myself—probably a thousand dollars a month after taxes, though the Marines gave me a place to stay and food to eat, so that money went far. I also made extra money playing online poker. Poker was in my blood—I’d played with pennies and dimes with Papaw and my great-uncles as far back as I could remember—and the online poker craze at the time made it basically free money. I played ten hours a week on small-stakes tables, earning four hundred dollars a month. I had planned to save that money, but instead I gave it to Mamaw for her health insurance. Mamaw, naturally, worried that I had picked up a gambling habit and was playing cards in some mountain trailer with a bunch of card-sharking hillbillies, but I assured her that it was online and legitimate. “Well, you know I don’t understand the fucking Internet. Just don’t turn to booze and women. That’s always what happens to dipshits who get caught up in gambling.”
Mamaw and I both loved the movie Terminator 2. We probably watched it together five or six times. Mamaw saw Arnold Schwarzenegger as the embodiment of the American Dream: a strong, capable immigrant coming out on top. But I saw the movie as a sort of metaphor for my own life. Mamaw was my keeper, my protector, and, if need be, my own goddamned terminator. No matter what life threw at me, I’d be okay because she was there to protect me.
Paying for her health insurance made me feel, for the first time in my life, like I was the protector. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that I’d never imagined—and how could I? I’d never had the money to help people before the Marines. When I came home, I was able to take Mom out to lunch, get ice cream for the kids, and buy nice Christmas presents for Lindsay. On one of my trips home, Mamaw and I took Lindsay’s two oldest kids on a trip to Hocking Hills State Park, a beautiful region of Appalachian Ohio, to meet up with Aunt Wee and Dan. I drove the whole way, I paid for gas, and I bought everyone dinner (admittedly at Wendy’s). I felt like such a man, a real grown-up. To laugh and joke with the people I loved most as they scarfed down the meal that I’d provided gave me a feeling of joy and accomplishment that words can’t possibly describe.
For my entire life, I had oscillated between fear at my worst moments and a sense of safety and stability at my best. I was either being chased by the bad terminator or protected by the good one. But I had never felt empowered—never believed that I had the ability and the responsibility to care for those I loved. Mamaw could preach about responsibility and hard work, about making something of myself and not making excuses. No pep talk or speech could show me how it felt to transition from seeking shelter to providing it. I had to learn that for myself, and once I did, there was no going back.
Mamaw’s seventy-second birthday was in April 2005. Just a couple of weeks before then, I stood in the waiting room of a Walmart Supercenter as car technicians changed my oil. I called Mamaw on the cell phone that I paid for myself, and she told me about babysitting Lindsay’s kids that day. “Meghan is so damned cute,” she told me. “I told her to shit in the pot, and for three hours she just kept on saying ‘shit in the pot, shit in the pot, shit in the pot’ over and over again. I told her she had to stop or I’d get in trouble, but she never did.” I laughed, told Mamaw that I loved her, and let her know that her monthly three-hundred-dollar check was on the way. “J.D., thank you for helping me. I’m very proud of you, and I love you.”
Two days later I awoke on a Sunday morning to a call from my sister, who said that Mamaw’s lung had collapsed, that she was lying in the hospital in a coma, and that I should come home as quickly as possible. Two hours later, I was on the road. I packed my dress blue uniform, just in case I needed it for a funeral. On the way, a West Virginia police officer pulled me over for going ninety-four miles an hour on I–77. He asked why I was in such a hurry, and when I explained, he told me that the highway was clear of speed traps for the next seventy miles, after which I’d cross into Ohio, and that I should go as fast as I wanted until then. I took my warning ticket, thanked him profusely, and drove 102 until I crossed the state line. I made the thirteen-hour trip in just under eleven hours.
When I arrived at Middletown Regional Hospital at eleven in the evening, my entire family was gathered around Mamaw’s bed. She was unresponsive, and though her lung had been reinflated, the infection that had caused it to collapse showed no signs of responding to treatment. Until that happened, the doctor told us, it would be torture to wake her—if she could be awakened at all.
We waited a few days for signs that the infection was surrendering to the medication. But the signs showed the opposite: Her white blood cell count continued to rise, and some of her organs showed evidence of severe stress. Her doctor explained that she had no realistic chance of living without a ventilator and feeding tube. We all conferred and decided that if, after a day, Mamaw’s white blood cell count increased further, we would pull the plug. Legally, it was Aunt Wee’s sole decision, and I’ll never forget when she tearfully asked whether I thought she was making a mistake. To this day, I’m convinced that she—and we—made the right decision. I guess it’s impossible to know for sure. I wished at the time that we had a doctor in the family.
The doctor told us that without the ventilator Mamaw would die within fifteen minutes, an hour at most. She lasted instead for three hours, fighting to the very last minute. Everyone was present—Uncle Jimmy, Mom, and Aunt Wee; Lindsay, Kevin, and I—and we gathered around her bed, taking turns whispering in her ear and hoping that she heard us. As her heart rate dropped and we realized that her time drew near, I opened a Gideon’s Bible to a random passage and began to read. It was First Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 12: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” A few minutes later, she was dead.
I didn’t cry when Mamaw died, and I didn’t cry for days thereafter. Aunt Wee and Lindsay grew frustrated with me, then worried: You’re just so stoic, they said. You need to grieve like the rest of us or you’ll burst.
I was grieving in my own way, but I sensed that our entire family was on the verge of collapse, and I wanted to give the impression of emotional strength. We all knew how Mom had reacted to Papaw’s death, but Mamaw’s death created new pressures: It was time to wind down the estate, figure out Mamaw’s debts, dispose of her property, and disburse what remained. For the first time, Uncle Jimmy learned Mom’s true financial impact on Mamaw—the drug rehab charges, the numerous “loans” never repaid. To this day, he refuses to speak to her.
For those of us well acquainted with Mamaw’s generosity, her financial position came as no surprise. Though Papaw had worked and saved for over four decades, the only thing of value that remained was the house he and Mamaw had purchased fifty years earlier. And Mamaw’s debts were large enough to eat into a substantial portion of the home’s equity. Lucky for us, this was 2005—the height of the real estate bubble. If she had died in 2008, Mamaw’s estate likely would have been bankrupt.
In her will, Mamaw divided what remained between her three kids, with a twist: Mom’s share was divided evenly between me and Lindsay. This undoubtedly contributed to Mom’s inevitable emotional outburst. I was so caught up in the financial aspects of Mamaw’s death and spending time with relatives I hadn’t seen in months that I didn’t realize Mom was slowly descending to the same place she’d traveled after Papaw’s death. But it’s hard to miss a freight train barreling down on you, so I noticed soon enough.
Like Papaw, Mamaw wanted a visitation in Middletown so that all of her friends from Ohio could gather and pay their respects. Like Papaw, she wanted a second visitation and funeral back home in Jackson, at Deaton’s. After her funeral, the convoy departed for Keck, a holler not far from where Mamaw was born that housed our family’s cemetery. In family lore, Keck held an even higher place of honor than Mamaw’s birthplace. Her own mother—our beloved Mamaw Blanton—was born in Keck, and Mamaw Blanton’s younger sister—Aunt Bonnie, nearly ninety herself—owned a beautiful log cabin on the same property. A short hike up the mountain from that log cabin is a relatively flat plot of land that serves as the final resting place for Papaw and Mamaw Blanton and a host of relatives, some born in the nineteenth century. That’s where our convoy was headed, through the narrow mountain roads, to deliver Mamaw to the family who’d crossed over before her.
I’ve made that drive with a funeral convoy probably half a dozen times, and every turn reveals a landscape that inspires some memory of fonder times. It’s impossible to sit in the car for the twenty-minute trip and not trade stories about the departed, all of which start out “Do you remember that time . . . ?” But after Mamaw’s funeral, we didn’t recall a series of fond memories about Mamaw and Papaw and Uncle Red and Teaberry and that time Uncle David drove off the side of the mountain, rolled a hundred yards down the hill, and walked away without a scratch. Lindsay and I instead listened to Mom tell us that we were too sad, that we loved Mamaw too much, and that Mom had the greater right to grief because, in her words, “She was my mom, not yours!”
I have never felt angrier at anyone for anything. For years, I had made excuses for Mom. I had tried to help manage her drug problem, read those stupid books about addiction, and accompanied her to N.A. meetings. I had endured, never complaining, a parade of father figures, all of whom left me feeling empty and mistrustful of men. I had agreed to ride in that car with her on the day she threatened to kill me, and then I had stood before a judge and lied to him to keep her out of jail. I had moved in with her and Matt, and then her and Ken, because I wanted her to get better and thought that if I played along, there was a chance she would. For years, Lindsay called me the “forgiving child”—the one who found the best in Mom, the one who made excuses, the one who believed. I opened my mouth to spew pure vitriol in Mom’s direction, but Lindsay spoke first: “No, Mom. She was our mom, too.” That said it all, so I continued to sit in silence.
The day after the funeral, I drove back to North Carolina to rejoin my Marine Corps unit. On the way back, on a narrow mountain back road in Virginia, I hit a wet patch of road coming around a turn, and the car began spinning out of control. I was moving fast, and my twisting car showed no signs of slowing as it hurtled towards the guardrail. I thought briefly that this was it—that I’d topple over that guardrail and join Mamaw just a bit sooner than I expected—when all of a sudden the car stopped. It is the closest I’ve ever come to a true supernatural event, and though I’m sure some law of friction can explain what happened, I imagined that Mamaw had stopped the car from toppling over the side of the mountain. I reoriented the car, returned to my lane, and then pulled off to the side. That was when I broke down and released the tears that I’d held back during the previous two weeks. I spoke to Lindsay and Aunt Wee before restarting my journey, and within a few hours I was back at the base.
My final two years in the Marines flew by and were largely uneventful, though two incidents stand out, each of which speaks to the way the Marine Corps changed my perspective. The first was a moment in time in Iraq, where I was lucky to escape any real fighting but which affected me deeply nonetheless. As a public affairs marine, I would attach to different units to get a sense of their daily routine. Sometimes I’d escort civilian press, but generally I’d take photos or write short stories about individual marines or their work. Early in my deployment, I attached to a civil affairs unit to do community outreach. Civil affairs missions were typically considered more dangerous, as a small number of marines would venture into unprotected Iraqi territory to meet with locals. On our particular mission, senior marines met with local school officials while the rest of us provided security or hung out with the schoolkids, playing soccer and passing out candy and school supplies. One very shy boy approached me and held out his hand. When I gave him a small eraser, his face briefly lit up with joy before he ran away to his family, holding his two-cent prize aloft in triumph. I have never seen such excitement on a child’s face.
I don’t believe in epiphanies. I don’t believe in transformative moments, as transformation is harder than a moment. I’ve seen far too many people awash in a genuine desire to change only to lose their mettle when they realized just how difficult change actually is. But that moment, with that boy, was pretty close for me. For my entire life, I’d harbored resentment at the world. I was mad at my mother and father, mad that I rode the bus to school while other kids caught rides with friends, mad that my clothes didn’t come from Abercrombie, mad that my grandfather died, mad that we lived in a small house. That resentment didn’t vanish in an instant, but as I stood and surveyed the mass of children of a war-torn nation, their school without running water, and the overjoyed boy, I began to appreciate how lucky I was: born in the greatest country on earth, every modern convenience at my fingertips, supported by two loving hillbillies, and part of a family that, for all its quirks, loved me unconditionally. At that moment, I resolved to be the type of man who would smile when someone gave him an eraser. I haven’t quite made it there, but without that day in Iraq, I wouldn’t be trying.
The other life-altering component of my Marine Corps experience was constant. From the first day, with that scary drill instructor and a piece of cake, until the last, when I grabbed my discharge papers and sped home, the Marine Corps taught me how to live like an adult.
The Marine Corps assumes maximum ignorance from its enlisted folks. It assumes that no one taught you anything about physical fitness, personal hygiene, or personal finances. I took mandatory classes about balancing a checkbook, saving, and investing. When I came home from boot camp with my fifteen-hundred-dollar earnings deposited in a mediocre regional bank, a senior enlisted marine drove me to Navy Federal—a respected credit union—and had me open an account. When I caught strep throat and tried to tough it out, my commanding officer noticed and ordered me to the doctor.
We used to complain constantly about the biggest perceived difference between our jobs and civilian jobs: In the civilian world, your boss wasn’t able to control your life after you left work. In the Marines, my boss didn’t just make sure I did a good job, he made sure I kept my room clean, kept my hair cut, and ironed my uniforms. He sent an older marine to supervise as I shopped for my first car so that I’d end up with a practical car, like a Toyota or a Honda, not the BMW I wanted. When I nearly agreed to finance that purchase directly through the car dealership with a 21-percent-interest-rate loan, my chaperone blew a gasket and ordered me to call Navy Fed and get a second quote (it was less than half the interest). I had no idea that people did these things. Compare banks? I thought they were all the same. Shop around for a loan? I felt so lucky to even get a loan that I was ready to pull the trigger immediately. The Marine Corps demanded that I think strategically about these decisions, and then it taught me how to do so.
Just as important, the Marines changed the expectations that I had for myself. In boot camp, the thought of climbing the thirty-foot rope inspired terror; by the end of my first year, I could climb the rope using only one arm. Before I enlisted, I had never run a mile continuously. On my last physical fitness test, I ran three of them in nineteen minutes. It was in the Marine Corps where I first ordered grown men to do a job and watched them listen; where I learned that leadership depended far more on earning the respect of your subordinates than on bossing them around; where I discovered how to earn that respect; and where I saw that men and women of different social classes and races could work as a team and bond like family. It was the Marine Corps that first gave me an opportunity to truly fail, made me take that opportunity, and then, when I did fail, gave me another chance anyway.
When you work in public affairs, the most senior marines serve as liaisons with the press. The press is the holy grail of Marine Corps public affairs: the biggest audience and the highest stakes. Our media officer at Cherry Point was a captain who, for reasons I never understood, quickly fell out of favor with the base’s senior brass. Though he was a captain—eight pay grades higher than I was—because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there was no ready replacement when he got the ax. So my boss told me that for the next nine months (until my service ended) I would be the media relations officer for one of the largest military bases on the East Coast.
By then I’d grown accustomed to the sometimes random nature of Marine Corps assignments. This was something else entirely. As a friend joked, I had a face for radio, and I wasn’t prepared for live TV interviews about happenings on base. The Marine Corps threw me to the wolves. I struggled a bit at first—allowing some photographers to take photos of a classified aircraft; speaking out of turn at a meeting with senior officers—and I got my ass chewed. My boss, Shawn Haney, explained what I needed to do to correct myself. We discussed how to build relationships with the press, how to stay on message, and how to manage my time. I got better, and when hundreds of thousands flocked to our base for a biannual air show, our media relations worked so well that I earned a commendation medal.
The experience taught me a valuable lesson: that I could do it. I could work twenty-hour days when I had to. I could speak clearly and confidently with TV cameras shoved in my face. I could stand in a room with majors, colonels, and generals and hold my own. I could do a captain’s job even when I feared I couldn’t.
For all my grandma’s efforts, for all of her “You can do anything; don’t be like those fuckers who think the deck is stacked against them” diatribes, the message had only partially set in before I enlisted. Surrounding me was another message: that I and the people like me weren’t good enough; that the reason Middletown produced zero Ivy League graduates was some genetic or character defect. I couldn’t possibly see how destructive that mentality was until I escaped it. The Marine Corps replaced it with something else, something that loathes excuses. “Giving it my all” was a catchphrase, something heard in health or gym class. When I first ran three miles, mildly impressed with my mediocre twenty-five-minute time, a terrifying senior drill instructor greeted me at the finish line: “If you’re not puking, you’re lazy! Stop being fucking lazy!” He then ordered me to sprint between him and a tree repeatedly. Just as I felt I might pass out, he relented. I was heaving, barely able to catch my breath. “That’s how you should feel at the end of every run!” he yelled. In the Marines, giving it your all was a way of life.
I’m not saying ability doesn’t matter. It certainly helps. But there’s something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why, whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, “The feeling that our choices don’t matter.” The Marine Corps excised that feeling like a surgeon does a tumor.
A few days after my twenty-third birthday, I hopped into the first major purchase I’d ever made—an old Honda Civic—grabbed my discharge papers, and drove one last time from Cherry Point, North Carolina, to Middletown, Ohio. During my four years in the Marines, I had seen, in Haiti, a level of poverty I never knew existed. I witnessed the fiery aftermath of an airplane crash into a residential neighborhood. I had watched Mamaw die and then gone to war a few months later. I had befriended a former crack dealer who turned out to be the hardest-working marine I knew.
When I joined the Marine Corps, I did so in part because I wasn’t ready for adulthood. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook, much less how to complete the financial aid forms for college. Now I knew exactly what I wanted out of my life and how to get there. And in three weeks, I’d start classes at Ohio State.