February 2018

My Hillbilly Roots

J.D. Vance’s rural Kentucky roots, described in his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” differ from my father’s family in southern Indiana in one important way. Vance’s violent, angry mother was a substance abuser with a trail of failed relationships in her wake. Vance carries the childhood scars. My dad’s family was a bunch of kind, reticent, teetotaling farmers.

Alvin and Lena Belle Blanton and sons Gerald and Leland, 1966.

But the similarities between our families struck me too – Vance called his grandfather Blanton “Papaw,” which I’d always thought was unique to my own Papaw Blanton but, I now know, is an endearment. And believe me, the corn fields and hills of southern Indiana and contiguous Kentucky are more southern than Midwestern. My grandma’s fried chicken was heaven.

The backdrop for Vance’s hillbilly stories emerges front and center in my own take on family: I look at rural poverty through a socioeconomic lens.

Vance, an acclaimed writer and Silicon Valley investment banker, “got out” via the Marine Corps, Ohio State University and Yale Law School. “To move up,” he writes, “was to move on.”  With sheer determination – supported by his tough, caring Mamaw – he overcame long odds, childhood stress-eating, and psychological retreat from a conflict-filled home. His Yale scholarship wasn’t earned on grades but because “I was one of the poorest kids in the school.”

To be clear, I do not see “getting out” as pejorative. Nor does “getting out” mean getting away from family. Rural people relocate in search of better job opportunities than what is available in depressed areas with eerily quiet “downtowns” of struggling or abandoned establishments pushed out of town by big-box retailers like WalMart and fast-food joints. Getting out is code for earning a decent living, buying a modest house, having health insurance, and being able to retire. In short, capturing the American Dream.

In my family, the strategy of getting out worked for some but not for others. Please bear with me through my generational story.

My late father, Leland Blanton, left home – Jasonville, Indiana, population 2,147 – so that my two brothers and I didn’t have to. His father – Papaw – owned a small-town gas station and, due to childhood polio, walked with a cane. A midwife helped my father’s true-grit mother deliver him into a three-room farmhouse with an outhouse. Twenty years later, his ticket out was a high test score that paved the way to becoming a hotshot pilot in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s and 1960s. Greenland, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Greece, Germany, Bangkok, Saigon, Turkey – he flew to every corner of the globe. We all lived nearly three years outside Tokyo. …Learn More

12