Thursday, August 20, 2015

Coalwood—the Caribbean Version

In 1998, a glorious book came out that combined my loves of West Virginia, the space program, and inspiring teachers. Written by Homer Hickam and entitled “Rocket Boys,” it would later become the Hollywood movie “October Sky.” Hickam eventually produced two more books about coming of age in his little hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia. I have read all three books of the “Coalwood Trilogy” and thoroughly enjoyed them. Furthermore, I've had the pleasure of meeting my fellow NASA alumnus Homer Hickam a number of times over the years, and have made several visits to Coalwood.
That's me inside the space shuttle trainer in Houston during my NASA days.

Little did I know that the Peace Corps would end up placing me in a Caribbean version of Coalwood. According to Peace Corps policy, I am not allowed to post on my public blog the name of my village, but it is a wonderful place on the island of Dominica. Given the similarities I see between this village and rural West Virginia, I think I shall consider my village to be my Caribbean Coalwood.

Just like Coalwood, there is one main road through my village—the folks here refer to it as Main Street. There are a couple of small offshoot roads (just like Snakeroot Road in the real Coalwood), but Main Street is the heart of the village. As happened in Coalwood, there are a couple of nicknames for different parts of this village, such as Green City (up at the highest elevation) and Uprising City (which has nothing to do with civil insurrection, but instead gets its name because it is on the eastern side of the hill so that it gets a good view of the rising sun).

Looking down on the heart of my village from the heights of Green City.

One section of Main Street is also known as “Lovers Lane,” apparently because at one time in the past there was a bevy of beautiful young women who lived along that stretch of the road and received a lot of attention from the boys. Likewise, another road acquired the name “Sportsmen Avenue” because there were quite a few soccer and cricket athletes who grew up together in that neighborhood. Even though the beautiful girls and the athletic young men have long since grown old, the nicknames continue.

Main Street parallels the creek that comes down off the mountain and empties into the ocean. There are several small footbridges leading to houses located on the other side of the creek from the road, just as one would see in rural West Virginia. Further up the hill, there is a trail leading off Main Street back into the woods, where a spring comes out of a rock. The village has built a small park in the woods to celebrate “La Source” (the spring). If not for the different trees (some with buttressed roots), the trail to the spring makes me feel like I'm in a West Virginia forest, under a thick green canopy, hiking back along a small creek. Just as I have seen in various places in West Virginia, some folks bring their jugs to get the fresh spring water that emerges from the hillside at the village spring.

There is a genuine sense of community here; the same as described in the Coalwood Trilogy books (Rocket Boys, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone). Folks tend to look out for each other here. Everybody seems to know everybody. The local elementary school, with its large playground, is an important part of the community. The good folks here appreciate their history. There is poverty here (lots of corrugated sheet metal and several immobile cars rusting away, both of which can be found in my home state), but there is still pride—much like true West Virginians.

However, just like most of rural West Virginia, there is a sense of change in the air. At one time, everyone was pretty much self-sufficient here. There was hardly any need to leave this isolated seaside village. Food from the fertile volcanic soil was plentiful, and many worked as farmers. More food grew wild in the nearby forests.

Although there is no coal here, fishing provided another opportunity to make a living off a local natural resource. However, the number of fishing boats that operate out of my village has dwindled down to just one fisherman. His ancestors were fishermen, and he vows to continue the family tradition. One reason for the decline in local fishermen (besides less fish, more competition, etc.) was a tragic incident that saw several residents drown when their boat sank. The effect was somewhat like a deadly mining disaster back home.

Just like in West Virginia, improved roads have made it easier for residents to commute further to bigger towns for jobs. Eventually, many of them ended up moving to the bigger cities, or even to other islands, or in some cases, to the United States. Many of those who left still maintain their houses here, and return to the village because they love it here, even though they chose to leave.

Lots of the young people would rather have a job in the city rather than the hard outside work required on a farm or a fishing boat. They have also been influenced by American television, and some prefer eating KFC or Pizza Hut that are available in the capital city, rather than cooking their own or eating the “bakes” and other home prepared foods that neighborhood women sometimes offer for sale from their porches along Main Street.

Just like in West Virginia, not only is the population slowly dwindling, but it is increasing in age as well as more young people leave. As a result, there are a lot more funerals than weddings here. Plus, the number of students in the elementary school has declined precipitously. Even some parents who live here choose to take their children with them while commuting to work, and enroll them in the fancier city schools.

Older citizens are bewildered at the way young people are attached to their smart phones—texting away to each other, surfing the web, or watching some video. Despite being in a rural community on a small island, technology is definitely impacting my village. Socializing on-line is becoming more common here, instead of casually strolling along Main Street to visit neighbors sitting on their porches, as was done more commonly in the past. American cable television (another advanced technology) gives them a distorted view of what life is like in the United States—I remind them that not all of us live in New York or California.

All of these observations from my first two weeks or so in my village could easily be made about rural West Virginia. It helps me feel at home here, even though I worry about what the future holds for my beloved village. Hopefully it has enough of a residual population and a healthy community spirit that will allow it to survive. Perhaps Dominica's restraint from over-development will help in the long run—much of the island has been designated as national park areas and the government is trying to focus on eco-tourism for what is nicknamed “the Nature Isle.” I am afraid that the option for that sort of tourism strategy has long since passed in my beloved home state, with all the mountain-top removal mining, industrial waste sites, acid mine drainage, etc. [Had coal not been underneath our mountains, West Virginia might be a lot more like Vermont.]

Unfortunately, I've seen some rural communities in West Virginia who have not been able to sustain themselves, and are now just a wisp of the vibrant places they once were—including the once beautiful town of Coalwood. I will be doing what I can to help sustain this Caribbean version of Coalwood. I may even try to launch some rockets with my students from the huge flat playground beside the school (and encourage them to read “Rocket Boys”). Wonder if I can bring some model rockets back in my suitcase when I visit home next summer? That would make this a real Caribbean Coalwood!

Finally, one of the important characters in the “Rocket Boys” book was the inspiring teacher, Miss Riley (played by Laura Dern in the movie). I will try to do my best to encourage my students to push themselves and study harder, just like she was able to do with her students.

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