My father, Richard Cook, then 14, used part of an early payday from Page Coal and Coke Co. to buy a box camera and photo developing outfit. One of the first pictures he took, about 1910, was Pageton, McDowell County.
In the Pageton photo, behind each house, what are those little buildings that are cantilevered over the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, (which joins the Ohio River at Kenova)? There seems to be one for each two families. If you guessed them to be outhouses, you win the Sears Roebuck catalog page. All the waste of that coal camp, and untold others, made West Virginia’s streams into open sewers. My father grinned that Pagetonites would joke about their produce being sent downstream, “If a t--- passes over three rocks, it’s purified.” I wonder how many rocks there are between West Virginia Water’s Elk River intake pipe and the river’s many headwaters?
In my novel, “Two Five,” grizzled mountaineer J.B. Hunt reminisces about when he was a boy and the grandfather who raised him. Several times each day while they were tilling corn, the old man laid down his hoe, walked over to the brook that bisected their farm, opened his bibbed overalls and relieved himself into the stream. J.B.’s ears caught that he was saying something, but couldn’t quite make out what. One day, J.B. asked him what he said during those semi-private moments.
To shorten the story — the old man told him he couldn’t afford a honeymoon trip until 20 years after marrying his grandmother. The couple took a train to Cincinnati. There, even by hotel and restaurant staff, they were treated with disdain, condescension and outright rudeness because of their manner of dress and speech. They took the next train home and never left their county again.
“A few months later,” the old man told J. B., “I read where Cincinnati pumps its drinkin’ water outa the Ohio River. I checked a map. Sure enough, our little branch here runs into the creek that runs into one river that goes into another river that dumps into the Ohio River. All goin’ downstream from here.
“So when I walk over to the branch and stand there pissin’ in it, I always say to ‘em, ‘Hyere’s some salt fer ya soup, Cincinnati.’”
Who, upstream from our water supplies, is salting OUR soup?
Many Americans speak condescendingly of third-world countries and “Montezuma’s revenge.” Who here in West Virginia is taking revenge on us? Certainly those whom we allow to pollute our streams so that our water quality is now mocked no less than a Central American drainage ditch. When I recently told an out-of-state friend I was again going to Mexico, he half-jested, “Don’t drink the water ... when you get back.”
During a 1999 trip to Cali, (pop. 2 million, elev. 3,500 feet) in Colombia, South America, my new lady friend wanted to show me the sights. So I hired a taxi for that day, which happened to be one of those rare ones when the mountains which rise 14,000 feet behind the city were not shrouded in clouds.
After a morning of plazas, cathedrals, museums and galleries, that sunny afternoon, the taxista took us 3,000 feet up a mountain to where the road dead-ends at an array of TV and microwave antennas. We got out. No one else was around except a few llamas and the occasional condor.
In the distance, above the tree line, between two tall ridges, behind a huge concrete dam, was a deep, glistening blue lake. The taxi driver, Wilmer, who had driven a cab in Miami until he saved enough to start his own business in Cali, told me the city’s cooperative owns the lake. It gravity-supplies all the water for the city, no pumps needed. Among the most naturally pure in the world, it is so clean it doesn’t need treatment, but they aerate and put a little chlorine and fluoride in it anyway. His water bill for a family of four in their completely modern home and his wife’s beauty salon on the premises equaled about $3 per month.
No one salts their soup but them.
If a mountain city, in a country some consider backward, can provide extraordinarily pure water which is not and cannot be contaminated — for more people than are in all of our state — ridiculously cheap — does that not place West Virginia or at least its leadership on a level below third world?
Why do we allow companies whose only motive is profit, to control our essence of life? Such things should be in the people’s hands through government responsible to us rather than foreign stockholders demanding “more, more.”
Like the City of Cali, we have vast ridges, hollows and flowing streams aplenty and the power of condemnation which we use to take property for everything else. It seems the only thing standing between us and pure, protected, affordable water is the will to make it so.
Dan Cook is an author, artist and inventor who guzzles the water in Hurricane.