I remember hearing an old Thanksgiving story first told to me in the dim past of the 1970s, back when most everyone here was poor but didn’t care because if you were rich you were crooked in some way, and at least we were honest. It was a tale of the mountains, and how there was once the Childresses and the Campbells and you were on one side or the other.
Theirs was never a famous feud on par with the Hatfields and McCoys, nor did their disagreement involve gunfire and murder. Mostly, it was a war of words. This in no way means the situation was any less dire. You will never know a hate more pure and powerful than the sort that burned for a Childress in the heart of a Campbell. Unless, of course, it was the enmity for a Campbell in the mind of a Childress. A whole generation was raised up in it, kids taught from birth that whichever family across whichever holler was an abomination to the Lord and all goodness.
I never did hear back then how it all started. In fact, I doubted then (and still do) that anyone knew. The Hatfields and McCoys went to war over a stolen pig. I expect it was something similar in this case, a small thing that got twisted into something large either through an abundance of boredom or the brokenness of the human heart. Really, that’s about what all wars come down to, isn’t it?
Anyway. About that Thanksgiving:
Right along with turkey and pumpkin pie here is the tradition of the Thanksgiving hunt, when most of the men and not a few of the women take to the woods in the early dawn to shoot something they can brag about at the table. Being good mountain folk, the Childresses and Campbells were much the same. And so it was on that long ago Thursday morning that a Campbell tracking a buck came across the distant shape of a man who had fallen from his tree stand. Thinking the injured was either kin or Christian, he ran to offer aid. It was only upon turning the man over that he realized the victim was neither. He’d done caught himself a Childress.
Yet rather than leave him there to limp out of the cold wood alone, the Campbell gathered the Childress up and piggy-backed him all the way to his truck, nearly four miles off. Once safe, there was no invitation from either for anything further. No request to come eat, certainly no offer of prayer and blessing. Still, the story was told and told again by both parties. There were a few dissimilarities, but both parties involved managed to say the same thing: “Shoot, he looked like kin.”
I’ve been thinking about that story a lot lately. Not whether it was true or not (it was a tale told by an old man, after all, and old men are never so interested in truth as they are in Truth), but how it applies all these years later. As I wake this Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, I find country and a world that hasn’t been more divided in my memory. People are scared, and because we’re scared we’re mad, and because we’re mad we’re saying all manner of crazy things and spotting all manner of lurking monsters. We’re not speaking to each other more as much as shouting. More than anything else, we see one another as set in boxes not of gender or race or religion, but ideology, and in so doing we lose a great deal of the empathy so lacking in our public discourse. People are a lot easier to hate when they’re not seen as people at all, but the sum of their opinions.
Which is why if I have one Thanksgiving wish this year (and if there is even such a thing), it would be that all of us could go out in the woods or a little while. Walk among the ridges and trees and see that this old world is still a pretty nice and peaceful place. And especially to run into each other out in the hollers, stripped of all that anger and fear, and see that shoot, we all look like kin.