A Different Kind of Haunting
by E. Gail Chandler
Just before my dad slid into the embrace of Alzheimer’s, he called me. “Everything not gone from my office in two weeks is going to the Hughes County Historical Society. Everything.”
My sisters and I came as bid. The room was a mountain of papers, documents, files, photos. A month later, we were still working and he had not yet followed through with his threat. Sometimes he watched us dismantle his life, but mostly he sat by the window in his chair, looking up the mountain at birds, squirrels, and an occasional wildcat.
I was sorting forestry information from Civil War discharge reports when he handed me a long roll of brittle paper. “This is your heritage,” he said. “It’s the mineral rights to a tract of land near Marshal that your grandfather bought, and it now belongs to his heirs. This paper is valuable. Take care of it.”
Mineral rights. What did I know about mineral rights? Only that they were the curse of Eastern Kentucky. That a bunch of outsiders came in and bought them off of ignorant mountain folks for fifty cents an acre. That later the courts backed the strip miners, and they destroyed farms and houses to get at coal bought many decades before anyone had thought of strip mining. None of my family, close or extended, would ever sell their mineral rights. What was Grandpa doing with someone else’s?
I opened the roll and glanced at it long enough to know that I didn’t want to study this plat of incomprehensible verbiage. It was something to deal with later, much later. So I took it home and stashed it in the back of the spare room closet beside a bag of Christmas bows and wrapping paper. When I opened the closet, the plat fell across the doorway. After picking it up, I shoved it behind the winter coats. It fell out again when I retrieved my heavy jacket. At each encounter, I wondered what I should do with it.
My parents moved out of Hughes County to a retirement patio home near Lexington. I often visited to do laundry, sort bills and help with the paperwork my father could no longer handle. On a visit a couple of years ago, the phone rang and I answered.
A male voice spoke with only a trace of Appalachian accent. “Is Mr. Muncy available?”
“He’s not very well. I’m his daughter and power of attorney.”
“”I’m employed by a gas company, doing some work in Hughes County. I understand your dad owns the mineral rights to some property near Marshal.”
“He and all my cousins. There are twenty-
five of us.”
“I knew there were a bunch,” he said. “I thought I’d start with the direct living heirs. I’m calling because we have a new way of extracting gas. The drilling is done horizontally at the most likely depth.”
“And you believe this land may be suitable?”
“I’m almost sure of it. Do you think your father would be interested in leasing those rights?”
“My parents are in their nineties,” I said. “They don’t have much time to be leasing. We’d rather just sell. That way they can get some good out of it.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
He never did, but I checked out his proposal. Fracking, I discovered, is what he was talking about. I was offering to sell so the gas company could frack, cause earthquakes, and pollute the water table. Me, who drove a hybrid car, protested mountaintop removal and was planning to buy solar panels in my personal battle against Big Coal. Me, a card-carrying environmentalist.
And fracking is what Hughes County needs, along with the New York Times declaring it the worst place in the United States to live because of poverty, obesity, and early death rates. And strip mining and mountaintop removal, of course.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my Appalachian roots. My father’s farm is about the prettiest piece of mountain land that’s ever filled a holler, the hillsides covered with dogwood, redbud and oak. The gentle valley. The burbling brook and all that. Did I really want to be part of more destruction?
That roll of paper still haunted me. I couldn’t leave it in the closet forever. I called my cousin, Violet, a fellow tree-hugger who lived in Hughes County and could use a spare dime if anyone could. A person wise in the ways of deeds and the navigation of official records.
“My dad says we have an inheritance,” I said. And told her what I knew.
“I’m going to Marshal next week. I’ll go by the courthouse and see what I can find.”
Later I went to the closet to get a pack of cardstock. The roll of paper fell across the doorway again. “Okay, okay. I’m seeing about you.” I shoved it back behind the coats.
On Halloween day, Violet called. “Sorry, I took so long. I had several trips to make. So here is what I found.
“Our grandfather was the original strip miner. After he bought the mineral rights, he stripped the entire piece of property. Ruined it so bad that the only thing it could be used for was a city dump. I went out and took some pictures so you could see how disgusting it is. A broad valley set between two mountains. Must have been a nice place once.
“The dump got filled up with trash and barrels of leaking industrial chemicals and factory waste. It got so bad that it couldn’t even be used as a dump anymore so they closed it down and opened a new dump.
“Anyway, if you go by Family Dollar but before you get to the carpet barn, about six miles this side of Marshal, there’s a sign that says DUMP ROAD. It’s out that way. That’s our inheritance, two twenty-fifths of it anyway. We ought to be real quiet about this.”
I wondered about that Bible verse, the one about the sins of the fathers.