Treading Water Next to Strangers - West Virginia Strong

Treading Water Next to Strangers

Morsels of Truth: By Bil Lepp

One of the funniest things my wife ever said was, “Oh, she looks like she’s auditioning to be the Grand Marshall of the Redneck Parade.” My editor is going to immediately object to printing that. He’s going to say it is offensive to the people we are trying to reach. But I am going to argue that the people we are trying to reach know full-well - and are proud of- their redneck heritage. We’re here. We like domestic beer. Get used to it.

Everybody who lives in this state because they love this state has at least a smattering of redneck blood in them.  One nice thing about the word Redneck is that even though ‘Red’ is right there in the name, redneck doesn’t denote Left or Right. A Democrat is as likely to be a redneck in these parts as a Republican. Or maybe it’s the other way around. A redneck is just as likely to be a Republican as he or she is to be a Democrat.  

Redneck says more about your yard accouterments than your political position.  As the good Dr. Foxworthy might point out - if you can jump off your deck, onto your trampoline, and then into your above-ground pool, well… that doesn’t tell me who you voted for.

Sure, redneck can be, and is used in a negative fashion. Like so many ethnic slanders or pejorative terms, it matters who is saying it to you, and how.

All that to say, me and my family spent Labor Day down on the New River. We like to go to the Cotton Hill area. And my friends, if you know where that is and have descended the trail while holding the knotted, tattered rope with one hand and toting your cooler in the other, then you have most certainly dipped in the holy waters of my redneck kin. Even if you haven’t yet exhibited symptoms, you are most certainly a carrier.     

So my wife said, “Oh, she looks like she’s auditioning to be the Grand Marshall of the Redneck Parade.” 

I was wearing a camouflage boonie hat, cheap wrap around sunglasses, old running shorts, and beat up sneakers. No shirt, if that’s not obvious. The only reason I wasn’t wearing a bandana is because I was using it as the gas cap for my truck. I’d had on cut-off jeans before we left the house, but my teenage daughter said in her way, “Are you wearing those?” And I said, “Nope. Just makin’ sure they still fit. Imma wear these when I give you away at your wedding.”

Anybody looking at me might have thought I was in the running for Grand Marshall myself. In fact, when my wife said that, I asked, “Is there a place to sign up for that election?”

When you are at the river you invariably end up treading water next to strangers while you wait your turn to, or wait to watch your kids jump off a rock.  Treading water next to strangers means you’re having a good time, or your ship sank.  Treading water next to strangers almost always leads to conversation.

“Are you from around here?”

“Where’d you go to high school?”

“Was so and so in your class?”

“No, but his little brother was.”

“Where’d you go to college?”

“What do you do?”

“Man, that’s a sharp boonie hat and some sweet wrap around shades.”


Okay. Maybe that last part didn’t happen.

Then the conversation between strangers, rednecks rich and poor, rednecks Left and Right, treading water and sharing a good time in the New River waiting to jump off a rock will go like this: 

“You know, back in the day, there was so many fish in this river it was hard not to catch them. You could walk down the river with a bucket and fish would jump into it. But it ain’t like that anymore. It’s hardly worth the trouble.”

“My great granddaddy used to drink straight outa this river.”

“Lord, I wouldn’t do that now.”

Then we go back to treading, a little more mindful about water getting in our mouths. 

No blame is implicit in the conversation. No one acknowledges what killed the fish. The reason a person wouldn’t drink straight from the river isn’t asked or explained between strangers treading water on a hot West Virginia day.  But there is a shared sadness, a shared shame, that rednecks- both Red and Blue- have let this occur.

Bil Lepp is a nationally renowned storyteller and a PEN Award winning author. To see more of Bil's WV Strong content click here. 

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