Authors Note: The following is an excerpt from a larger body of work written largely from my own experiences, but like all authors I reserve the right to change names to protect the guilty, seasons to reflect my mood and religions as it suits me. I generally leave politics out of everything. All situations similar to those experienced by anyone else are not my fault!
I have never been one to be defined, at any point really in my life, unlike so many of my own generation, by the music that I listened to. The main reason is that music, unlike books, was relatively rare in our house. My parents didn’t own a massive record collection, didn’t have music happy hour or family time and my Dad flatly refused to listen to the radio in the car, like most normal people do, as that interfered with his driving and he couldn’t hear the engine properly over the sound of the radio. So, as a result I never became enamored by the sounds of my generation of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s as so many others did.
But during the summer of 1990, the album was everywhere. It defined us. We identified with it, with the screaming lyrics and the intensity, frustrations of corporate marketing and Hollywood’s definition of who we were, those lost souls from the end of what would be later coined as the x-generation. We were torn between mullets and camo hats, Rambo style sleeveless shirts and the inevitable no-sock, white sport jacket by Sonny Crockett. We were enticed by the Mambo No. Five, but clung to the roots of our land and heritage as tenaciously as possible.
Unfortunately, this was a time of turmoil and strife within the coal fields of Virginia and the surrounding states. The traditional ways of life were rapidly disappearing right before our eyes. Jobs were drying up faster than we could scrap up ways to make up money somewhere else. Many turned to drugs – something I steered mostly clear of throughout my life, recognizing that there was no escape from the path before me without turning my back on what others were embracing.
One particular morning is forever imprinted on my mind. I had graduated from high school and was accepted into the Air Force Academy, Virginia Tech, UVA and King College. My dream, my childhood dream and reason for most things I did was to become a fighter pilot in the USAF. I was too young to enter the academy and so had agreed to go to King College instead of the other schools of choice. It was closer to home and my girlfriend at the time lived not far away.
That morning, in the dew of the backyard near my dad’s workshop, I had disassembled a race bike that I had found in a nearby town, hopelessly crashed and in pieces in a crate. The birds sang, I was deeply tanned already from all the time spent in the gardens, working construction and simply being constantly outside. My dad had sort of given me a car, one that I hated, but ran and got really good gas mileage, which wasn’t much of a concern in 1990. “Sweet Child Of Mine” was playing on the radio that morning and the sun was already evaporating the mist. My wrenches spun in the early morning and my siblings wandered out to see what I was doing. My baby sister, forever at that time of her life in rollerblades, skated up to say hello. She should have been barely walking but instead had leapfrogged all the way to wheels on her feet.
I knew I could turn a profit on the bike I was rebuilding, I had races scheduled all summer, thirty-five yards to mow, a girlfriend a few towns over, plenty of walking around money and the world in my pocket. All I had to do was phone in a semester at King and theoretically I would be bombing our poverty stricken enemies from the relative safety of the cockpit of an F-16, to me the sexiest of planes. I really thought I would be running dogfighting missions across Southeast Asia, but my imagination often supplanted reality.
The reality was, I went to King, experienced terrible cafeteria food for a few months, managed to beat my parents off the campus when they dropped me off, sans car as I had totaled it over the summer and proceeded to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted during my first moments of total freedom.
The problem was, I didn’t know what I wanted. All my life, my parents had encouraged, nay, insisted, that I go to college. Having never went to college themselves, they really didn’t understand the actual benefits, the money involved or what impact it would really have on a relatively sheltered mountain boy to be abandoned on a campus full of Navy Blue Jacketed white boys and girls still wearing bobby socks and parking their BMW’s in the school “patched” parking lot.
I played “Welcome to the Jungle” and “My Michelle” on a never ending loop in my dorm room, enraging the other students. Nights could be found with my head under a pillow and “Paradise City” blasting in my ears as Bobby and Cody discovered that they were gay next door. Was that the ultimate rebellion? I settled for my stand against authority “Animal House” style: Ron Matney “Has no GPA.”
Did I understand the ramifications of my rebellion against nothing? Not really. I simply went back home, to a world I understood and started over. I went back to my old job with my uncle, attended community college and vaguely pursued my dream of being a pilot. I kept myself in unbelievable shape, something not hard to do with the work I was performing. I practiced exams and study guides until I knew them by heart.
I was again accepted into Virginia Tech in 1994. Thrilled beyond belief, my parents readied me for my second excursion into a larger world, my being better prepared, they hoped. What did I do that summer? I married a local girl who refused to leave her parent’s last wedding gift – a single-wide house trailer behind their house. Why? I have no idea. Self-destruction, I suppose. An excuse for not succeeding in a larger world. My little world was strategically placed in case of failure. Intentionally, no. Subconsciously, I think it was a safety net.
One I didn’t need, not that time. I did well at VT, working in mining on the weekends in WV and maintaining a grueling study/workout/work regime that may have in the beginning embarrassed a Navy SEAL. I was determined now to be a pilot. I finished my degree with my dream almost within my grasp when my future ex-wife, demanded, no insisted, no, screamed that we must return to her mommy and church where she could go to church instead of hell, which she was certain existed just east of Blacksburg and extended all the way to the center of the earth.
We did return, I worked as a mine foreman and hated every minute of my existence. I would get phone calls from students who were travelling the world, going on perpetual vacations and having what seemed to me a euphoric existence. I fought black lung and had knee and ankle surgery. They played on a beach in Thailand – I had my ankle reconstructed. They worked as bartenders and lived for schwag – I was trying to make as much money as I could.
With what most considered to be a certain future and a great life, I walked again. Left my wife and her bubble and entered graduate school at VT, where I fought once again with authority over my responsibilities as a PhD student. I lasted exactly one semester. Undeterred, I was accepted into RU’s graduate program, where I was a perfect fit. After graduation I was offered several jobs, good ones with high pay – I went to the beach for the summer. I was accepted into the PhD program in Geological Engineering at VT – I crashed my car and broke 27 bones.
My Dad was diagnosed with a terminal liver disease about that time. I was offered a full position with the NASA group studying the Mars mission in Reno, NV. I moved to Reno, once again clashed with authority, decided there was too much drama and left.
Back in mining in WV once again, I locked horns with my bosses once more, fighting them over every slip in safety regulations, dreading the day when I would be responsible for someone dying somehow on the longwall, one of the most dangerous places on this earth. The strain broke me and I ended up in D.C., dating a want-to-be-but-never-will-be model who had followed me around like a lost dog for years. After so much drama that my nervous system was shot, I started drinking heavily and broke up with her.
I met my wife in D.C. and the self-destruction lessened on the surface and increased with depth. I worked hard, made her proud, was promoted and given a huge office. I hated the city with all my heart. I threw away that opportunity and we moved to Blacksburg, VA where I worked for a smaller office and was largely bored. I left the safety of that firm for another, then another as I sought something, something to fill a space emptied by a lack of, what, exactly? I didn’t know. There was just no challenge, no excitement and I was horribly bored and stressed at the same time. My drinking escalated by that point enough to scare my wife.
During the economic crash of 2006-2009, I had largely escaped intact due to my charisma and work ethic and mostly likeable personality. No one saw the real me behind the false face I projected – nobody saw the addict, the self-destructive tendencies, the old injuries and scars of so many years of living so close to the edge. I lost my job in 2009, not from any fault of my own for the first time, but from the firm downsizing. I just became a number in an equation that was failing.
After a period of wallowing in self-guilt and pity, I snapped out of it long enough to find another job, not one that I wanted or liked, but it was safe. My wife worked with the firm and was invaluable to them – they wanted to keep her at all costs, even if it meant hiring her largely overweight, rather flaky husband with a dubious resume and strange background.
After about a year, I became so frustrated and bored that I was considering packing our things and leaving. We talked about it, but I didn’t know what to do. My drinking escalated.
By this point, everyone knew I had a problem. Most probably knew what it was. I didn’t. I once again pursued something else, a passion that I have always had for teaching, studying for a M.S. in teaching. I was wildly successful as a student, at the top of my class every semester. At this point, my drinking had consumed my life.
The School Board realized something was wrong. Tasked with the safety of the children and placement of teachers in schools, they made the decision to expel me from the program, the first of such in years. I fought it and was re-admitted, only to be asked to leave once more.
Around this time, my wife became pregnant. We were thrilled beyond belief and my drinking lessened. As the time period for his entrance into the world came closer, I became more and more self-destructive, drinking heavily most of the time.
Impaled on a spear of guilt and self-immolation, I crashed and burned. Nearly dead, my wife admitted me into the hospital for my second attempt at monitored rehabilitation. It worked, for about three months. I started hiding alcohol again and becoming ever more vague about my whereabouts, what I was doing and the depth of my sickness. My wife panicked one day, fearing for my safety as well as hers and helped me admit myself into rehab. She and my team of doctors and counselors saved my life that day, once again.
Throughout all this time, food remained and continues to be a solace, almost an embrace, a place where I can reconnect with my childhood and those innocent days of the season, each with their unique flavors and cooking methods. From canning to grilling, storage and ripening, time spent in the kitchen became irreplaceable. No matter how hungover, how sick, how broken or how depressed – a day in the kitchen creating dishes brought me crashing back to reality, where I would often curse my addiction and the wasted time spent fighting against authority of any kind.
Today, things are quite different. I am treating each day as an opportunity, being honest with my wife and it’s been seven months since I’ve had a drink of any kind. The only job that I could get after all of that nonsense was as a line cook at a local restaurant and resort. I work hard, go home every day and thank God for my chance to be with my family, sober and clear-headed for the first time in a very long time.
Like most of my generation, I have come to peace with my life and who I am, but some spring mornings I can still hear the gripping notes and polarizing lyrics of “Appetite for Destruction.” They fade now into the shadows as I play with my son and hug my wife thank God for these moments of peace in my life.