I met him 23 years ago in a McDonald’s in East Tennessee. I was a twenty-something community organizer embarking on my first “real job” after college. I’d only just arrived in Tennessee from Wisconsin a few weeks before full of brilliant ideas and energy, ready to save the world. He was a middle-aged factory worker who’d grown up and lived his whole life in Appalachia. My young and oh so wise self was sure I’d have so much to teach him from my infinite stores of knowledge. It didn’t take long for me to see just how wrong I was.
My co-organizer Gil and I had just arrived. Gil would be introducing me and starting to hand over the work of coordinating the strip-mining issues committee. We were meeting Landon Medley, the committee chair, at McDonald’s that day. Gil and I had spent a lot of time discussing the Fall Creek Falls campaign, a major campaign to protect more than 60,000 acres of land surround the tallest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains from strip-mining. He’d told me a great deal about the strategy so far and where it was headed as well as about each of the committee members and allies involved. He told me quite a bit about Landon and who he was. I don’t remember if he ever mentioned the crutches though. I remember not quite knowing what to do when this short middle-aged man using Loftstrand crutches walked toward us and Gil greeted him. Should I help him? How could I assist?
It was only a moment. Then as quickly as those crutches were set aside, I began to learn. Landon was one of the children of the 1940’s in Appalachia who survived polio. While the illness left him with a disability that impacted his life and health, it never stopped him and maybe even made him stronger. He had a love for his Appalachian home that ran deep in his soul. I still have a painting on my bookshelf that he made for me of those beautiful mountains. There is no place on earth like it. He was a gifted historian and author. He was also a great leader of the fight to protect his mountain homeland from multinational mining corporations and others who have sought to destroy it in so many ways. It was a gift to call him my friend and mentor.
Today I learned that because he’d had polio as a child he wasn’t able to receive the COVID vaccine. A little boy who won the fight against one the most devastating diseases of the 20th century thanks to medical advances and much struggle, lost the fight against COVID. It hurts to think that he didn’t have to lose this struggle. He lost because of all the people who’ve opted not to get vaccinated, who’ve chosen not to wear masks, who’ve taken unnecessary risks, thinking that their actions only impact themselves. We aren’t separate beings. We are connected. I ask that each person who reads this act not only for yourself, but for the love of others. I wish you all wellness and joy. Take good care.