“Liberté, Egalité, Frivolité”

[Story contributed by John Emmeus Davis, 2015]

At one emotional pole of the Coalition experience was the gravity and ferocity of the organization’s founder, Bill Dow. He usually displayed little patience for peers whose personal commitment to the SHC’s Appalachian mission was less focused, less serious than his own. (For good reason did we call him “Dow-Wow”). To Bill’s credit, however, he twice accepted into the organization’s ranks someone whose motivation for going to the mountains was a wee bit different.

Charles Schiff represented, in many ways, the opposite pole of the SHC experience. Nobody enjoyed his summers in Appalachia more. It was his good fortune to have been assigned as a community worker to the Clearfork Valley where Marie Cirillo and her allies had spent several years doing grassroots organizing. Before Charles ever set foot in Clairfield, they had established a couple of health councils, a community-controlled clinic, a community development corporation, and had laid the foundation for the health fairs headed their way.

Charles Schiff on the roof of the Vanderbilt University Medical School building, summer 1971.

While his counterparts in other communities were starting from scratch, therefore, Charles found himself in a place where the usual SHC prep work had already been done. That left him with plenty of time to pursue his own quirky interests. Like a kid in a cultural candy store, he happily immersed himself in the music, crafts, foods, flora, and folklore of Appalachia.

To the surprise of nearly everyone, Bill Dow in particular, whose own response to his wayward colleague was generally one of tolerant bemusement or occasional exasperation, Charles was warmly welcomed by a backwoods people with a deserved reputation for being deeply suspicious of strangers. And nobody in the memory of these isolated mountain communities was stranger than Charles.

Here was a wiry, curly-haired Jewish guy from Florida with a penchant for removing his shoes to walk barefoot in the woods. His favored method for washing clothes was to find the rare house with an indoor shower – or head to a state park with a public shower – sprinkle detergent on the floor, spread his clothes near the drain, and stomp them clean. He would romp with the youngest kids and listen raptly to the yarns of the wheezing coal miners. He would enter a house way back in the hills, sniff the air, and make a beeline for the kitchen. After begging to know what was cooking and how it was being prepared, he would pick up a spoon or reach in with his fingers, sampling whatever was on the stove.

He learned to whittle and to play the fiddle, repeating with delight the advice of the old-timer who was teaching him to play: “Any damn fool can figure out where to put his fingers; the music is in the bow, boy, the music is in the bow.”

Fiddling around was a far cry, of course, from the more intense medical, legal, and political pursuits of the SHC’s other members, performed some days to the point of exhaustion. But Charles was always a bit out of step, dancing to a tune only he could hear.

That was made comically clear to me during our week-long SHC orientation at the start of June 1971. As the latest cohort of recruits was preparing for deployment to a dozen communities in the coalfields of Tennessee and Kentucky, a Vanderbilt professor of philosophy was invited to facilitate a collective reflection entitled “Why are we going to Appalachia?”

For over an hour, Dr. Scott led an animated discussion challenging a disparate group of graduate and undergraduate students to examine their motives and expectations for the work ahead. Most were eager to talk. But not Charles, who sat silently in his seat with a puzzled look on his face.

As the meeting broke up, I asked him why he had not said anything. After all, Charles was returning to the Clearfork Valley for a second summer. He surely had insights worth sharing with people who were heading to Appalachia for the first time. He answered by saying, in effect, that he simply couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. “Why are we going to the mountains? That’s easy. We’re going there to have fun.”

We did have fun of course, although few of us who took ourselves so seriously back then were as ready as Charles to make such a cheeky confession – at least not in the beginning. Indeed, it took a while for the more ardent of Bill Dow’s early recruits to admit that the work we had volunteered to do could be impelled as much by discovery and conviviality as by grim determination. Laughter was okay.

In truth, it did not really take that long. Charles wasn’t the only one who enjoyed the music, hikes, wild ramps, and daily fellowship to be found during the SHC’s forays into Appalachia. He was hardly alone in looking for places to go skinny dipping on a hot summer’s night.

So dependably did the pendulum swing back and forth between working hard and playing hard among the summer warriors of the SHC that I once joked to Tom John after my second tour of duty that the motto for any revolution fomented by the SHC must certainly be Liberte’ Egalite’ Frivolite ‘. He chuckled and agreed (of course).

The dedication and drive of Bill Dow held sway throughout the SHC’s heyday, but fun crept in regardless. It kept us going during long days of work. It drew us back to the mountains again and again. Charles wasn’t entirely wrong after all.