I’m reminded of Mayfield, Kentucky every day by a poster that hangs in my living room. I found it in my grandfather’s garage after he died and I had it framed. The image depicts a boy wearing overalls and a dog with him. They are both looking upwards as the plane passes through a field of farmland below. It’s an advertisement for the Kentucky Clay Mining Company in Mayfield, now defunct, but the painting is called “Heir of All the Ages” after a Tennyson poem. I the heir of all the ages, in the foremost files of time…
The 11th of December was the day I saw it.ThMy aunt and cousins, who all survived the tornado that decimated Mayfield’s town, were my first thoughts. My hometown is about a 45-minute drive away. There was also a birthplace for my mother and Graves County where my grandparents lived, farmed and raised their children. My aunt was a third-grade teacher there for thirty years, and my uncle worked for four decades at Mayfield’s General Tire plant. While I was answering many family members’ texts, scrolling through videos and footage of the aftermath made me realize that it wasn’t simply damaged. The town was just gone, much like Paradise (California) in 2012 and Joplin, Missouri (2011). It was there one night— with its antique stores and barbecue joints, its flaking brick walls with faded advertisements from the 1800s—and in the morning, it was gone.
Mayfield’s story is like the stories of small towns across the country. It has been told over and over again by Bruce Springsteen in songs and campaign speeches. Because of the fertile Graves County’s bottomlands, Mayfield is agrarian. My grandfather used to grow burley tobacco there. But the arrival of General Tire in 1960—like the arrival of the uranium plant in Paducah, a few miles away—brought new jobs and prospects. Suddenly, men and women who’d toiled in humid fields, pulling the suckers from tobacco—who’d grown up reading by the light of kerosene lamps – could trade in their tobacco pegs for hard hats. A life without the need for heat, water from the city and food that was prepared in advance could be theirs. These were good jobs—union jobs with protections and benefits, and I have to imagine that those people, like the boy in my poster, agog at the miracle of flight, must have felt that they were entering a new era—an era of growth and shared abundance, an era of wild sights, the likes of which no one could imagine.
General Tire was closed in 2007. General Tire closed down in 2007. My uncle worked at it for most of his adult life. It was most likely due to exposure to asbestos. The 58-acre site where it once stood later came to serve as the city’s landfill. Writing is my hobby. I avoid using obvious symbols. But it’s hard not to see Mayfield as a microcosm. A piece of drone footage was viralized in the wake of the tornado. The clip began with a mural—Mayfield, Kentucky: More Than a Memory—then panned over the rubble of the town, which looked less like the site of a tornado than that of a bomb’s detonation. Like the “revitalized” downtown areas of Paducah and Murray and countless other communities in Kentucky, Mayfield had become a purveyor of nostalgia. The stores that had once sold clothing and hardware now sold antiques—milkglass dishes and farming implements, posters like the one on my wall. In other words, it had been a symbol of a rapidly fading past.
This transition—from farming, to industry, to a retrospective era of nostalgia—has been captured movingly by Kentucky writers like Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason. Mason was born in Mayfield and her stories are just as great as those by Raymond Carver. Her work has been a constant source of inspiration for me. It’s nothing new to notice, in other words, that these towns are disappearing, and that whole ways of life are disappearing with them. But I guess I thought the structures— the courthouses and pharmacies and antebellum churches—would remain for a while as palimpsests. It would take us a while, I thought, to witness their gradual disappearance.
As many kids my age in Kentucky’s 90s, I felt no reason to move on. And I didn’t. The vestiges of mid-century’s manufacturing boom were still there, but their pay was not keeping up with living costs. The workers of the Mayfield candle factory, whose roof was ripped off by the storm, were the same. The factory was known as Mayfield Consumer Products. It started with $8 an hour. This was in a county that has a per capita income of about $25,000 and where almost 18% are below the poverty threshold.
I’m wary of narratives that might be too neat or reductive, or that use the tragedy to advance an argument, however valid that argument might be. It’s true, of course, to say that a once-in-a-century tornado traveling 200 miles in December is yet another harbinger of climate change, that it will foreshadow the destruction of a thousand other Mayfields in the next fifty years. And it would be right to point out the travesty of a third-shift worker, in a plant called “Consumer Products,” working a job that pays $8 an hour, dying two weeks before Christmas in the middle of a pandemic. But what I can’t stop thinking about is that mural and that for so many people in small towns, the world that they once knew has already slipped away. They may believe that populist politicians can save them. Or maybe they are too naive to trust hucksters. That world wasn’t real to them. Jusqu’à Friday night they were able to reach out and touch Mayfield.