My Work as a Courier for the Frontier Nursing Service in Appalachian KentuckyAll of us are to one degree or another cut off from the world. Privilege tends to thicken the shell. And so I, growing up in a big house outside of Louisville, Kentucky, leading a life of luxury, protection and sophistication, look back with gratitude on the times I was led or forced out of that shell; first, to work as a volunteer in what was then called, simply, the women’s insane asylum in Peewee Valley, Kentucky, and then, a few years later, as a Courier for the Frontier Nursing Service [now Frontier Nursing University] in Hyden.
Growing up in Louisville meant that the mountains and the people who lived there were as remote as the moon. Rumors abounded: “those people” bred idiots almost as a pastime, because they were so isolated their choice of mates inevitably involved incest; “those people” hated outsiders and would roll giant stones down onto the cars of unwanted visitors; those people were ignorant, violent, addicted to feuding, a shame on the state.
And, as it usually happens when we name a certain group “other”—a practice people in the U.S. seem to come to as though by instinct—some of us were curious about who “those people,” living only a few hours away from the rest of us, really were.
I don’t think I ever expressed that curiosity. It had to be expressed for me, in the form of my parents’ decision that I couldn’t spend the summer between my junior and senior college year at home because I didn’t want to make a debut.
I knew I would hate all those parties, and I knew it was wrong that the one Jewish girl in my high school class would not be able to make her debut because the country club didn’t accept Jews.
Nobody spoke about that, or argued for or against the exclusion. It was simply a fact.
My liberal parents had to support my decision, in theory, but in fact, they were horrified. Principles tend to break down when they run against the rules of upper-class white society.
To avoid the embarrassment of having me at home but uninvited to the summer’s parties, my parents decided to send me off to the mountains, to work as a Courier for the Frontier Nursing Service; at last I would see what “those people” really were like.
I was intrigued, and frightened.
The Couriers were all teenaged daughters of well-heeled families; I would realize later that we were given those unpaid summer jobs as a way of persuading our parents to donate to the cause.
We lived in a big plain dormitory a few steps away from the horse stable and the log cabin where the founder, Mary Breckinridge, lived, and where the midwives, all British, and the Couriers sometimes were invited to have tea.
Mrs. Breckinridge was a leader, austere and commanding in old age, one of only two women leaders I met at this time in my life.
The midwives were jaunty and brusque in their jodhpurs and tall riding boots; they had the necessary training to deliver babies in remote mountain cabins, and a camaraderie that did not include the Couriers, who came from another world and would soon return to it. We were not expected to do much; we mucked out the stalls, fed and groomed the horses, and now and then, as a special treat, were invited to ride along with the midwife when she went out on a call.Since we lacked any kind of training, we did not go into those small cabins secreted in the hollows of the Kentucky hills. Instead, we stood, sometimes for hours, holding both horses, waiting for the midwife to emerge with her saddlebags and a brief, very brief account of what had transpired inside.
So “those people” remained unknown. But the signs of their life, the wells equipped with winches and buckets, the staring privies, the yards where occasionally chickens pecked or a forlorn wreck of an old car perched on dead tires, gave me a sense of their dire persistence in what would have seemed to me an impossible life: too many children, too much work in the deadly coal mines, too much illness and poverty and a total absence of what, to me, made life possible: painting, music, writing and reading.
I also felt the midwives, and Mrs. Breckinridge, were just as foreign to me, possessed of some vision, some energy I’d never encountered before. I felt very small and very ignorant among them.
But perhaps that smallness and ignorance must be claimed, in all humility, before at least one layer of the shell of privilege is penetrated, before a tiny breeze from the big world slips in.
Later, when I discovered the photographs of Doris Ulmann and learned about her summer in the Kentucky mountains with the folksinger, John Jacob Niles, I felt a kinship with a woman who dared to broach strangeness. The play I wrote about Johnny and Doris’ collaboration, which produced a book of photographs and a number of haunting folksongs, is called “Piggyback”—Doris set up her big camera to take a shot of Johnny carrying her on his back across Cutshin Creek.
Like Doris, who asked the mountain women to dress up in their grandmothers’ calicoes and pose beside long-abandoned spinning wheels, I didn’t really understand “those people.” But also like Doris, I knew they had something to teach me about perseverance—and it all began with that summer of confusion and adventure at the Frontier Nursing Service.
[This piece was inspired by my Courier story being featured by Frontier Nursing University on their website. A .pdf download of that story is available. The other Courier stories are available for download as well.
Photos are from Wikipedia. For more on Doris Ulmann, visit her Wikipedia page. For more information on the Frontier Nursing University, visit their website, or the Frontier Nursing Service Wikipedia page.]