Perry Steele on the summer of 1972

Perry Steele at the school house in Petros, Tenn., 1972

[Story contributed by Perry Steele, 15 May 2017] 

I was finishing my sophomore year at Vanderbilt. Nixon hadn’t drafted me. For some reason Professor Scott suggested I could be a community organizer. Having no other plans for the summer, I was lucky enough to work with Kathy Stanley and Irwin Venick.

Someone lent Kathy and me a little blue Chevy Nova II for our work. We sometimes saw Irwin but he was usually busy elsewhere.

I remember Irwin recounting he had taken a Mennonite family in his old blue van to see a doctor in a larger town. The man learned Irwin was Jewish and asked Irwin if the Jews still performed animal sacrifices! Once we spent the afternoon with Byrd Duncan talking and hiking about. It was hot as blazes and I didn’t have a cap so I put my T-Shirt over my head. Byrd said I looked like a Pharaoh. Byrd also told me not to believe that Astronauts landed on the moon because the moon is a “celestial body” that can’t be landed on. He also advised, “don’t sit on a rock because you will catch a cold.” I’ve found his second bit of advice to be true.

I lived with the Bradley’s in Petros, Tenn. (Petros was later used as the set for the movie about a young rocket engineer,”October Sky”, since Petros was like the rocket engineer’s home town). The Bradley house was full of guns because J.W.’s friend had been dynamited by the strip miners. J.W. insisted Kathy and I learn to shoot, so we’d go up the the town dump and learn to shoot revolvers, pistols, rifles, and shotguns. I kept expecting an attack on the house and I was ready to protect Kathy to the death.

When Kathy and I finished our “community organizing” work for the day, we’d go down the the creek behind Kate and J.W.’s house and catch crawdads with their youngest daughter, Mary Faith. Mary Faith had a pitifully sad looking red hound dog named “Redbone” who would sun himself in the road and only move when a coal truck came barreling down the mountain at him. Sometimes Redbone would stay out all night and in the morning Mary Faith would hug him and then say, “Oh, Redbone, you stink, you been out rolling in an old dead snake again.” My co-worker Kathy was a such a strong person she could handle anything and not flinch.

As we visited people in Petros and the surrounding community to tell them about the coming health fair, we heard tales of how the only doctor had been shot during a home invasion while watching He-Haw with his wife; of a 12 year old girl getting married; of the murder of one woman’s sleeping son by a relative armed with an army shovel. Kathy would get exasperated with me as I used to be very happy in the mornings (I no longer have that problem).

We had a big turnout for the health fair. The doctors did a lot of good work. We could have used a dentist too because several little children had black teeth rotten from being allowed to drink Pepsi Cola every day. I slept in the school during the fair to protect the equipment and to kill the bats that would get into the school.

Up the road from the Bradley house was Brushy Mountain State Prison. James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King, Jr., was still in prison there at that time. Also at the prison was a man known as “Boodles”, whose crime was collecting insurance on his cars and mobile homes that set on fire. The irony about Boodles was, his family used to own the very land that Brushy Mountain Prison was built on. As John Gaventa points out in his excellent book, “Power and Powerlessness”, much of the land in Applalachia, (having been taken from Indigenous peoples and settled by Whites), was eventually bought up for very little money (or sometimes just stolen) by big coal companies. Then the farmers went to work in the mines. They would end up renting enough land back from the company to put a house on but could never buy the land back. To me this is the “macro” problem in Appalachia (and more and more everywhere) and frankly I got depressed about the fate of our endeavor to bring health care to a region that was mainly poor because it had been robbed.

I began to see that I was not far removed from the people I was trying to help. I was lower middle class at best, and I was the first in my family to be able, eventually, to finish college and to go on and get a Ph.D. and then a J.D., but that was later.

One more anecdote: When Kate Bradley had her 39th birthday, J.W. teased her by telling us all, “When she turns 40 I’m going to trade her in for two 20s”. Of course he didn’t and Kate and J.W. and their family and Byrd Duncan and many other people I met in Petros that summer were truly “salt of the earth” folks. The doctors and lawyers who worked for the Coalition that summer were truly amazing, caring people.

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