A Tale from the Thai Thai
[Ed's Note: This post is in part an homage to the late sonnypage, a Fool still sadly missed, but a great read on its own merits.]
Board: Macro Economics
“Be careful,” the man said.
A small smile crinkled my mouth as I intuited his meaning. “Sure will,” I nodded. “Thanks.”
He reached down again for the pint bottle that rested on the ground. Something clear. Gin or vodka or maybe just straight-up grain alcohol. What had been in the brown paper bag when he passed me on the street a few minutes ago.
The man had no way of knowing that I had already made my decision and that his warning wasn’t necessary. But I appreciated the thought.
A month ago I decided to do this. So it was that I put in for a week of vacation during the fourth week of August and began, from my office there on L Street in Washington, D.C., to make ready to be gone.
On Saturday morning I wheeled the Harley out of the shed, aired up its tires, lashed my pack to the rear seat, and pointed it west. It was a trip I had planned to do for years. Alas, one thing or another always seemed to get in the way.
Sometimes we wait too long.
When I was a kid I read a book by Virgil Carrington Jones about the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s. I was entranced. The deadly feud that had befallen the extended kin of those two families – friends and neighbors all - seemed an astonishment to me. I vowed then to one day come and visit the killing ground along the Tug Fork dividing Kentucky and West Virginia. And finally, here at long last I was.
Ask people about Matewan and they’ll think of the movie. Based upon the true story of the 1920 massacre when Baldwin-Felts detectives hired as armed thugs by the coal operators came to town to evict striking miners from their home. When they were confronted by Sid Hatfield, the town’s police chief and a distant relative of the Hatfields of feud fame, along with Mayor Testerman and a handful of angry miners, shooting broke out in the center of the little town. When it was over ten men lay dead.
I had seen the movie, of course.
What people mostly don’t know about Matewan is that thirty-eight years prior to the 1920 massacre it was also the scene – just across Tug Fork and perhaps twenty paces up the bank on the Kentucky side – where three McCoy boys were tied to pawpaw bushes and executed following their fatal stabbing of Ellison Hatfield a couple days earlier. Thus did the feud begin in earnest.
I had originally thought to spend a couple of nights in Matewan. But as soon as I pulled into town after a long two days of riding I was disabused of that notion. Cruising slowly down the street, I shook my head.
Parking the bike, I pulled my Leica from my pack and began a slow reconnoiter.
Nearly deserted, the couple of square blocks of the old town center held the air of despair. Broken shop windows, going-out-of-business signs, and a general state of disrepair hung like a pall over the little community. Seems the renovated train depot hadn’t been so renovated after all.
While I stood in front of the Post Office reading the plaque about the 1920 massacre, a man whom I judged to be about thirty walked past me holding a paper bag in his hand. We nodded a quiet greeting to each other.
If the historian in me was disappointed and the humanitarian was dismayed, at least the photographer was intrigued. Decay and dissolution are part of our world and can sometimes make for trenchant subjects. And so it was that aspect had me circling the depot with an eye towards light and shadow. And that’s where I came again upon the young man - this time ensconced in the back doorway of one of the non-descript businesses – with his fresh bottle on the ground and his warning for me.
No worries, my friend.
Back at the bike – relief sudden that no harm had come to it in the few minutes it was out of my sight – I mounted back up, considering my options. It would be dark in another couple of hours and I hadn’t the haziest idea of where I was going to spend the night. Adjusting the .38 S&W in my jeans pocket, I turned the Harley back up to the stop sign, paused, then turned north towards Williamson and Pikeville, themselves, too, part of the killing ground.
Thirty-four years ago I was sent from the distant reaches of my home in Northern Virginia to a place not far from here. I was a newly minted 24-year-old telephone installer for C&P Telephone Company, one of the old Bell Operating companies. West Virginia had endured epic flooding that spring and the C&P divisions there needed all the help they could get. Ostensibly, I volunteered.
The real reason is because I had the temerity to have a brief relationship with a woman in management. Apparently, she had spurned the advances of one or more of the senior executives and that didn’t sit well. That she would then take up with some kid – and a bargained for, union represented one, at that - was just too much for them to handle. She got shipped out in one direction. Me in the other.
Such were the mores of the time. It didn’t much matter that she was single, I was single, and all the old guys that she rejected were married. It was one of my first lessons in the wielding of power and influence. And that such is often devoid of rationality or fairness or integrity.
The two summer months I spent in Beckley and Huntington were fascinating in lots of ways – perhaps stories for another day. What I didn’t know at the time was that a fellow telephone installer from a different garage back home was also sent there. They sent Craig to Williamson.
Craig and I later met once we returned home, became friends, and, of course, compared stories of our duty in West Virginia. We both had seen hardship. Abject poverty. People stricken by economic circumstances that today seem hardly fathomable.
Craig had seen something else. Near the town of Man, he had seen a retarded man chained up, like you might a dog.
Craig was a truthful guy, not known for exaggeration. I never took his story to be apocryphal. And so, back to the present, and after a good night’s rest in Pikeville, I rode back east into West Virginia and began my exploration. I spent the morning visiting those areas that had long held my fascination. Logan and Main Island and Blackberry Fork. The places where hard-bitten men had once turned upon their neighbors with murderous intent.
And then I turned towards Man.
I found it a surprise. Far from the tiny, stricken hamlet I had long envisioned it to be, I found it instead to be, if not overly prosperous, nevertheless a place of energy and hope. Cruising slowly along the street, I passed a pawn shop with a row of compound bows displayed out on the sidewalk, something you don’t see every day. Turning the Harley around, I came back and parked.
Inside, I first wandered to the back to look at the guns and the bows and the fishing tackle – turns out the store was a sports shop as well. But what I found most intriguing was near the front, adjacent to the long rows of pawned goods. A high-definition, flat screen television was set up a few feet from the register and displayed on it was a pretty young woman talking about the prospects of Bank of America. On the bottom part of the screen was a stock ticker.
As I stood there for a moment putting my ear plugs in, I had to smile.
If that sounds condescending, I don’t mean it to be. If there is a greater reason for my week-long road trip, it is to reset perspectives from the white-collar D.C. world I normally live in. I have always found West Virginians to be among the friendliest and happiest people I have ever met. As I traversed the state heading towards Tug Fork, I chose to ride the tiny roads that spiral across the mountains and pass you along from one tiny community to the next. The consistent themes you see are shadowed hollows, streams, railroad tracks, coal mines, and tiny little towns built not as squares or rectangles or circles – but strung lengthwise along the road and the river, following the contours of the landscape just like everything else. That, and stark beauty. The mountains rise above you in sheer, breathtaking cascades, like cathedrals.
Entrepreneurship is everywhere. Little shops, often operating out of people’s homes, offer everything from haircuts to taxidermy to tax services to any number of different kinds of repairs. It’s not a world of business plans and ROI and continuing to grow a business bigger and bigger every year. It’s a world of trying to eke out just enough dollars over cost to simply survive.
The irony is not lost on me that, notwithstanding the long efforts of these good people, many of them will make less in a year than some of us will gain or lose in a single day in the markets.
Choices matter, of course. It does, indeed, make a difference what decisions we make. But it also helps to be lucky. To be born in the right place, at the right time, and to the right parents. The fruits of capitalism fall in a vastly disproportionate heap to those who are.
But these good, proud people don’t often dwell on the challenges they face. Places like Matewan and Williamson and Man and all the countless other burgs and hamlets across the land where things are tough… sure could use a break. But at the end of the day what matters most is the soul and the spirit they bring to the task. When I sat down in my hotel room that night in Pikeville and loaded the images from my Leica into my laptop, I noticed one shot in particular. Down at the very edge of town, at the corner of Hatfield and Mate streets, the concrete portico held, in addition to the street post sign, a rustic wooden barrel, an elegant wooden bench, and a landscaped concrete square from which a tree grew. All that, and a sprinkling of red flowers. Small though that street corner might have been, it was nevertheless well-manicured and beautiful, the equal of anything you’d find in the finest of gated communities, without a hint of despair written in it.
How can you not love people who would do such a thing?
And so that’s the message I take. To be a little bit more like them, to count my blessings.
And then, with that thought in mind and the day waning, I turn south. I have something to do.
It takes me two days. Rolling lengthwise across West Virginia, back into Virginia, then into Tennessee, down into North Carolina, and finally, at long last, dropping out of the mountains of northern Georgia.
To Atlanta and the Thai Thai.
Sonny’s old stomping ground. The place that inspired so many of his great posts. And so that’s where I sit, right now, as I type this.
What can I tell you? Just like Sonny always said it was… it’s a lovely place. The people are nice. The food is outstanding. The only thing that would make it better is if Sonny himself were here to share it with me. With us. We could laugh. I could joke and tell him that in a couple of years when we’ve got Steven Strassburg back and Bryce Harper is up my Nats will have his Braves’ number. He’d probably smile and say “yeah, maybe, but there’ll still be Philly in front of both of us.” He could tell us once again about Silver Wheaton, whether he thinks Randy Smallwood is up to the task. We could ask him if he thinks he’ll ever again be all-in on it.
There’s one last thing. If he were here I’d smile at him and tell him thanks for that four-percent-of-portfolio flyer I took on Silver Wheaton back in January, just for fun, based solely upon his recommendation, without doing so much as an hour’s worth of due diligence. I didn’t keep the position long – just a few months. But it netted a nice little thirty percent gain. And it says something about Sonny that that’s the only time I’ve ever done such a thing. I probably never will again.
I’m not nearly the silver wonk that Sonny was, but I do have a handful of silver coins – again, which I surely wouldn’t have were it not for him. Just before I left home I went to the drawer and extracted two mint 2010 one-ounce Silver Eagles. It was the first time I ever really looked at them. Sonny was right, in that last post of his. They truly are beautiful. I slid them in an envelope and put it in the pocket of my pack.
They’ve come a long way. And, yet, not nearly far enough.
This morning, before coming to the restaurant, I stopped by Sonny’s wife’s office and left the coins, for their two kids. It was the only thing I could think to do.
And now, having finished an excellent meal and my thousand-mile detour, I’ll head back outside and climb on the Harley and turn it north, towards home.