The air was brisk, and the nubs of the harvested corn-stalks were covered with hoarfrost. A cassette player blared a Waylon Jennings song someone had recorded from the radio. George hooted at the dark autumn sky as if trying to summon some animal spirit. In the shadowy light I caught the disapproving glances my parents gave each other. It wasn’t that all dancing was bad in their eyes, but it was shameful if you did it like George: with a passion, legs jigging, steps straight out of the Appalachians. Our father wanted my siblings and me to be more than foolish hicks like our great-great-grandfather, who had been run out of Kentucky for unspecified crimes and ended up here in Indiana. But George’s dance fascinated me like nothing else, the taboo sway of his knees and hips. I had seen men dance like this before: at high-school graduation parties or weddings, the graduate or bride and groom children of other union members. I longed to watch and learn.
I always find it interesting how the pieces in a volume of Pushcart interact with each other. Sometimes they come at similar themes from different angles,and sometimes they show how differently those themes can play out. In the fiction piece “Skinfolk” we had a couple of teenagers trying with all their might to escape their home culture; here in this real-life memoir, we have a teen trying to understand what his family culture had been just a generation or two earlier, against the clear efforts of his parents to deny that heritage.
The piece opens at a neighborhood celebration over a victory for the labor union – hence the title – where Crandell first became interested in how George danced, drank, and celebrated his rural roots with abandon. Crandell’s parents were far more staid, possibly because they were not far removed from the same behavior. A few years later, Crandall was eager to move on with his life, heading to college and then, who knows. But he still had the desire to experience the kind of freedom he saw in George’s dance.
Even as George brought me closer to my ancestry, I was aware that I would soon be getting my degree and moving away from that job, that place. George was curious about college life. He thought my being an undergrad psychology major meant that, after I graduated, I could prescribe him drugs: “Don’t you go forgetting that ol’ George taught you how to cook this cancer tile and showed you how to do the two-count.” My heart sank, because I realized I wouldn’t be staying on at the factory after college, which meant I might not know George much longer. I felt caught in a tug of war between the old life my parents somberly led and something new I could not wholly grasp. And the old life was slipping away.
This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered Crandall. Back in 2017, his Pushcart piece told of discovering “honor comes in different shapes and sizes” via a new neighbor who was far more “hippie” than his parents were comfortable with, yet turned out to also have lessons worth learning. Today we keep hearing about rural people who don’t want anything to change, yet here is one man from the heartlands who was willing to see difference as potentially positive, rather than as a threat.
* * *