How One Family Survived Economic Collapse

In 1968, when I was an 8-year-old boy, my family had a really, really bad day. My dad, my grandfather and other male relatives from both sides all lost their jobs at once, when the Lehigh Portland Cement factory in Craigsville, Va., closed its doors for good. The old limestone plant finally wore out, ending a mining tradition that had existed for nearly a century, and that had once employed 500 at its peak.

The town never recovered, but my family of four did—over time. Out of the rubble, the men went on to become carpenters and preachers—and, in my dad Bill's case, a game warden, a job much better than the one he had lost. My mom, Joyce, forged a new career after years of working in garment factories, and opened a beauty shop in our home.

That all sounds nice now, but being forced to move made the road back rough and rocky: "Leaving where you grew up was hard," my dad remembers. "You always want to go back home. It took a while to get over that. I was away from the friends I hunted and worked with. I was born and raised a mile and a half from the factory."

It was just as tough for my mom, if not more so: "We had a brand-new house, a brand-new car and brand-new kids," she says, "and it was scary because we thought we were doing so well." They were, for that time and place, and they never recovered the buying power they had when their annual income dropped from $16,000 to $5,800 overnight.

Three generations of men in my family had been in the limestone quarry business, and I might have been the fourth if the plant stayed open. Instead, I find myself today working in Washington, D.C., in journalism, a field dramatically different from when I started 22 years ago. So I'm starting to understand a little better what my dad must have felt like working in that dying old cement factory, which is why I've spent a lot of time lately rummaging through my own family's past looking for solace. I found some, of the cold-comfort variety.

We moved 70 miles away—to the Shenandoah Valley—but it might as well have been a thousand. "We had to start all over," my mom said. "We lived in a cinderblock apartment, right by the highway. It was the first time I ever saw a cockroach." Another low point came when we got a letter from the school that said we qualified for free lunches. My mom was furious: "I was shocked. We never sent it back. We didn't take a penny from anyone. We caught trout, and we'd get milk from the dairy and I'd make butter in my mixer. You just went on with your life. Everybody else did, too."

Make that almost everybody. Me, not so much. I came home crying after my first day at the new school because the other kids knew how to write in cursive and I was ashamed because I couldn't. (I think I might have even received the last recorded wedgie for not writing in cursive ever given in the U.S. school system.) The teasing stopped later in the year, however, when I was transformed into the coolest kid around because my dad brought home an abandoned bear cub. If getting your own personal black bear was a side benefit of this whole job-loss thing, then maybe we were going to be OK, I thought. That era of good feeling lasted until he bit our neighbor near her jugular vein and we had to send him away. Really. That happened.

A lot of good, hard-working people live in Craigsville today, but the tattered remnants of its heyday are impossible to ignore. The drive-in theater where I stretched out on the hood of the blue Ford Fairlane with my brother, Chris, in our footy pj's and watched movies like "Planet of the Apes"—which came out the same year the plant closed—is now a cow field. Its movie screen is a collapsing mishmash of weathered gray boards, a rusty old sign that reads HI WAY DRIVE IN marking the spot. The town ice-cream parlor is boarded up, and the country store where I bought Mallo Cups and Mountain Dew—back in the "tickle your innards" days—is now, literally, a parking lot. Cue Joni Mitchell.

The cement factory still stands, ghostlike. Every window in the building where my dad worked has been broken or shot out, but the happy childhood memories rush back every time I visit the ruins: my mom would take us down to bring my dad his lunch or a Scotch-plaid thermos full of coffee, and it was thrilling to see the towering smokestacks, and listen to the loud sounds of the men turning boulders into dust.

Today it's a hangout for drunks and teenagers smoking pot, a silent reminder that nothing is permanent. Standing before the vine-covered walls at Lehigh, I feel a little like the distraught Charlton Heston I watched on that big screen as a little boy, when he dropped to his knees in front of the half-buried Statue of Liberty and cried out: "Oh, my God! I'm back. I'm home … you maniacs! You blew it up!"

It was a sad day for my family when the plant closed, but my father now calls it "the best thing that could have happened." Maybe there's a lesson in that for everyone facing hard times. Like my dad, even Heston had to eventually get up out of the sand and climb back on his horse with his woman and move on, and that was after the earth blew up in an atomic war and was taken over by talking apes. At least that hasn't happened to us. Yet.