Whenever I’m out in the field, interviewing folk and taking photographs, I’m frequently asked the same questions—Questions about my career as a writer and photographer.
“You must have the best job in the world,” someone will tell me as I’m about to leave their homestead, farm, or business. “What’s it like to have a job that allows you to have fun with what you’re doing?”
What can I say to that? “It’s wonderful,” I might reply. Or I might say “I don’t know since I haven’t done much of anything else. I really don’t have much to compare it with.”
The truth is: It’s my life. I’m a very lucky guy. I get paid to just walk down the road and take pictures, write stories, and talk to some of the most interesting people God ever created. That might sound trite and sentimental. But it’s true.
I’ve met many people with interesting stories to tell: a man who carved his own wooden leg out of a walnut tree; a woman who kept a pet possum in her kitchen cabinet, a fellow who lived with a ghost that wouldn’t allow the man to use all four rooms of his house; four fiddling sisters in their 70’s who got together once a year to play their instruments in the front yard; a would-be circus performer who did acrobatic stunts in his cornfield; a small town police chief who had been stabbed nearly 20 times and shot twice, once by his own deputy; a mountain patriarch who was 96 years old and still feuding with neighbors; an veteran educator who had taught in virtually every one-room school in his county; a virtuoso gravel-shooter who could take a snake’s head off at 30 yards with his forked weapon; an elderly Beckley woman who once cooked roast duck for Clark Gable and got roses the next day from the matinee idol.
Proud of my Appalachian background, I sang about the virtues of rural folk when large newspapers of the Mountain State feared embarrassment and criticism for being loyal to their own readers.
Yes, I’ve often written stories about moonshiners, cock-fighters, teachers, preachers, singers, muleteers, farmers, mechanics, physicians, cooks, bikers, skaters, and just about every kind of traveling salesman you can imagine.
While doing features in America, I’ve dined with the Cajuns of Louisiana, the lobstermen of Maine, the rodeo men and women of the Southwest, the coon hunters of the Ozarks.
I’ve enjoyed some of the best possible experiences on earth, working at a profession that I chose for myself, not one that was chosen for me.
When I was a boy, I got the same advice that most youngsters get: be a doctor, lawyer, veterinarian, college professor, businessman, or banker.
And an assistant to an engineer once, in the way of advice, exhorted me to abandon my journalistic dreams and become a tree surgeon. “You can go right to the top,” he said, and I think he was serious.
Another fellow tried to hook me up as a truck driver, hauling towels, linens, and uniforms for a trucking firm. I balked at those offers, preferring to stay in school and find a profession I could live with.
That was more than 50 years ago.
But I didn’t just emerge from of a hollow log and start producing stories and photos for publication. I paid my dues working at small newspapers and writing about ordinary people, real people—my favorite kind of people.
An editor once told me that I had a keen ear for dialogue. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that it was a deep love for the spoken word.
I was lucky enough to have editors and publishers who believed in the kinds of features I loved to write. I’m still a lucky guy. I can just be myself.
I was born to be a writer, a photographer, and a teacher.
I am one of the few people who get to do what he likes every single day of the year.
And I wouldn’t trade places with anyone—doctors, lawyers, bankers, and the like, although I know how important they are, too.
In my youth, I accidentally wound up in a high school journalism class. The teacher put me to the test. Again, it was a stroke of luck for me, even though I lost track of her and never had the chance to thank her.
God bless you, Marietta Cook, wherever you are.
Top of the morning!