Are You Now or Have You Ever Been. . .

PRENTER,  APPALACHIAN WEST VIRGINIA. 1950. A young, pregnant woman sits in the living room of her home, one of only five houses in the county with indoor plumbing and electricity. She is a registered nurse; her husband, company doctor. Together they make  house calls, keep office hours and manage the practice. “The company” is a coal mine.

The doctor’s house is the second largest in the row of the privileged five. The other houses that have light and sanitation belong to the company manager (the largest house), the two school teachers, and the Presbyterian minister. His church sits at the top of the dirt road. The road turns right abruptly towards the two-room schoolhouse a few yards beyond the doctor’s place.

Across the dirt road,  running parallel to it, the run-off from the coal mine makes a filthy black creek in a roadside ditch. Beyond that, again parallel, is the county road– one  paved lane lined with huge old magnolia trees on one side and a hill on tbe other. The narrow bridge from “the main road” crosses the ditch up near the church.

The woman, Ann, sits on a bright yellow, leather-covered hassock about four feet in diameter, watching the only television in the county, its nine-inch screen flickering black, white and grey. Today, she is wearing a green maternity blouse with a white collar over a white skirt. Her red-brown hair is swept up in a curly ponytail, tied with a narrow white ribbon.   She holds a baby on her lap.

The baby, a girl, is just under two years old, alert and wide-eyed. She is as fascinated by the box as her mother. She sees the little hammer. She hears the Clack! Clack! Clack! and the  men’s voices, shouting at each other– all coming from the box. She feels her mother’s frustration, her anger, her rage. Now Mama talks to the screen, furious with the shouting men. The baby feels her mother’s passion, absorbs it, learns it, right there, in that moment.

In 1976 the baby, now grown up, is a publicist at the University of California. She writes a press release for Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?, a play about the House  Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which began in the 1930s and did not end until well into the 1960s. The dialogue is taken word-for-word from the records of the  hearings. She looks at production photographs, reads portions of the play. She interviews  the director. During this conversation, in a sudden, blinding flash, the detailed memory of  sitting on her mother’s lap, watching the proceedings on television, springs forth. It  remains her earliest childhood memory over 50 years later.

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