I am a man who shouldn't be writing his story—the son of a coal miner whose hardscrabble family included a grandfather with a predilection for blowing up houses and sleeping with any woman who would half agree and a mother whose mission seemed focused on making her son into the most fearful man on the planet. Little wonder I ended up in a psychiatric hospital before the age of forty.
For my dad the family legacy was one of disdain, ridicule, abuse, and regret. For me it was a truckload of fear that followed me no matter where I went or what I accomplished.
There were amazing characters,* like Uncle Fred, known to the family as Uncle Fat due to the rolls of flesh that flowed over his belt and settled like a small mountain above his knees. Though Uncle Fat was the jolliest of men, in my last memory of him, he was in an alleyway sleeping off another hard-drinking night. The trouble was poor old Fat never woke up.
As a young boy growing up in the Appalachian coalfields of southwestern Pennsylvania, I had no idea that there could be better ways to live. Like other families in the area, mine was poor but not dirt poor, and there was no shame in it, at least not in the economic sense. Despite its craziness, I loved my family, regardless of the ways it wounded me.
But what does a man whose life was shaped by an often affectionate, sometimes hilarious, and always dysfunctional family have to talk about? How is it possible that the life he has lived has any bearing on other lives, on your life, for instance?
By telling my story, I hope to explore what can happen not just in one life but in every life that is touched by the hand of God. Mine is a book that zeroes in on one life—on my life—in order to place the spotlight where it belongs—on the transformative journey from broken to beloved that begins whenever people put their hands into God's hand and allow him to take them wherever they need to go.
The story I tell begins with brokenness and pain. It's a journey of long duration. But its trajectory, its narrative arc, leans toward joy. By sharing my journey and the things God has taught me along the way, I hope to help you on your own transformative journey so that you can experience the richness of the life God has for you.
Because of my experience counseling, teaching, and praying with thousands of people over the course of many years, I have come to understand that it is only by looking back that we can begin to move forward on the healing path.
* A few names have been changed to cloak the identities of those who appear in my story.
I once asked my dad if anyone had ever called us hillbillies. "If they ever dared to, I guarantee they'd never try it a second time," he said. "After a guy in a grocery store called your grandma white trash, Grandpap beat him out the door and down the steps in two seconds flat."
"'Course it wasn't like Grandpap was trying to stick up for her," he chuckled. "He'd probably been cheating on her the night before. He just didn't like some guy calling his woman white trash."
My grandfather was a rough and ruddy character, a short man whose face was littered with freckles that spilled down his neck and onto his muscular arms. With ice-blue eyes set close above a large nose red from years in the sun, he smelled of diesel fuel and dirt. Despite his rough edges, Grandpap could be pleasant, charming even, until somebody triggered him. When that happened, look out!
Life in Venetia, a hamlet in the southwestern corner of Pennsylvania, was never easy, especially for coal miners whose labor was both brutish and backbreaking. Every year the mine claimed its tithe of men. Those who survived formed a union and then walked off the job in protest, setting up picket lines that quickly turned into battle lines that soon became violent.
I'll never forget what happened to Ol' Man Barns, who lived in a three-room shack perched on the edge of a hill just above the railroad tracks. His worn-out patch of dirt couldn't produce enough food to feed his wife and kids, so when the owners of the Slopjar Mine dangled a small bonus in front of anyone who would cross the picket line, poor Ol' Barns took the bait.
Grandpap was furious when he heard the news. Like every other coal miner in our one-intersection town, he was 100 percent behind the strike. Barns was a scab, a traitor, and every infernal name Grandpap could think to call him. Clad in his favorite wifebeater T-shirt and a pair of grease-stained work pants, Grandpap paced the living room. Back and forth he stomped, running calloused hands through his reddish-brown hair, cussing a blue streak, and threatening that he was going to make Ol' Barns pay.
It must have been something to witness the white-hot curses that flew from his mouth like great bolts of lightning and the blue-tinged veins that bulged from his unwashed neck.