Far from the canyons of lower Manhattan or the rugged peaks of Afghanistan, 9/11 led to an unexpected breakthrough in an ancient feud. From the remote hollows of Appalachia issued some bold words of peace: ‘Our families stand as a symbol of unity to let the world know that we will not allow our freedom to be taken from us. We stand together to oppose any force that would threaten our country. A country made of people from all nations in the common bond of freedom.’ Reo Bentley Hatfield II wrote these words.

Reo’s ancestors were responsible for the most notorious feud in American history. He was an expert on the topic.

 

The Hatfield-McCoy feud stretched from the end of the Civil War to 1890, causing mayhem and the deaths of dozens of people along the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, the West Virginia-Kentucky border. A series of murders, clandestine executions, ambushes and a house-burning later, the two states nearly went to war with each other. The feud, heavily sensationalized by yellow journalists in the national media, was adjudicated in a US Supreme Court hearing and resulted in a public hanging.

It was the refusal of Reo’s great-great-grandfather, Bad ’Lias, to pay a debt for a fiddle to Tolbert McCoy on Election Day in 1882 that led to a fistfight that went very wrong. In the end, Tolbert and two of his brothers stabbed Bad ’Lias’s bearish cousin Ellison Hatfield, a hulking Confederate veteran, twenty-seven times and shot him for good measure. Even so, he lasted long enough to tell his brother Devil Anse what had happened. Feud on.

In 1947, decades after the last gun was fired, the feud almost started up again. This time Reo’s grandfather, Allen Hatfield, the chief of police of Matewan, West Virginia, was to blame. When he went with another officer to raid a bawdy house, an angry patron grabbed the gun of the other officer and shot Hatfield twice in the back. ‘My grandfather turned and shot him dead’, says Reo.

The man happened to be a McCoy.

Afterward, Allen sat on his rocker coolly talking to a reporter about the incident. The infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud had long been over. But now a Hatfield, who had a bullet hole through his shoulder and a slug in his hip, had just killed a McCoy. Hatfield finally ended the chat by saying that he believed he’d go on down to the hospital now to get the bullet removed from his hip. ‘Hatfield shoots McCoy at scene of famous feud’, the paper blazed the next day. Feud revived.

 

Reo Hatfield II disliked the McCoys on principle, and never had any intention of making amends with them: ‘Never even considered it’, he says. ‘Never planned on doing it.’

But that changed after 9/11.

 

When the attack started, Reo II was in his office at Reo Distribution, in the western Virginia town of Waynesboro. Reo Distribution occupies a flat, high-fenced, 114-acre industrial site, with several hundred tractor-trailers and a 400,000-square-foot building originally built by GE as a printer factory and converted into his headquarters in 1990. Like most others, Reo assumed that the initial strike was an accident. He had always wondered how a building that tall in such a busy air corridor could avoid being hit.

An openly patriotic man, Reo had served for two years in Korea as a sergeant in the army. He was married, a father, and had worked for Smith’s Transfer for twenty years in Savannah, Georgia, Tampa Bay, Florida and finally Waynesboro, where he jumped ship to start his own business. In his spare time, he served as a deacon in the Church of Christ. He was the chief of the reserve unit of the Waynesboro police force, and, on 9/11, he was just starting his second four-year term as vice-mayor on the city council.

When the second plane hit, Reo was glued to the TV in his office, surrounded by American flags and statues of the bald eagle. The image in his mind is the impact of the second plane, the flash of fire, the flames shooting out of the building and nothing but black cold-looking smoke billowing out of the building.

Reo’s response, like his ancestors’, was action. Now he huddled with the citizens of Waynesboro and they began to pool their resources. Whatever the community came up with, Reo would get it there. It did not take long. Within a week, they sent four loaded tractor-trailers from Reo Distribution, including an entire truckload of air filters for the clogged ventilation systems of the buildings surrounding the World Trade Center and nine thousand pounds of dog food for the search-and-rescue K-9s. They sent ten tonnes of bottled water, two 1,000-pound pallets of flashlight batteries, hundreds of blankets, five generators and quantities of soap, cleansers, brooms, mops, buckets and $14,000 in cash. The citizens all signed a banner that went on the side of one of the trailers.

The people of Waynesboro stood on the roadside, waving and cheering the trucks as they left. ‘One of drivers told me he was having trouble seeing, he was so proud. But that was nothing compared to when he arrived and saw how the people were so upset. He felt violated and broke down in tears, like the firemen around him.’

 

In 2002, the fourth annual Hatfield-McCoy joint family reunion occurred in a few towns on either side of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River which separates eastern Kentucky from southern West Virginia. While the event was conceived as a way to bring tourism to an impoverished coal-mining region, it attracted hundreds of Hatfields and McCoys, both prolific families, now spread across the country, for among other things a tug of war across the river between the two families.

To Reo’s great surprise, the McCoys, who had heard about his 9/11 relief effort, decided that it was deserving of their family’s most hallowed award. They called it ‘The Real McCoy’. It had always gone to a member of the McCoy family.

On a makeshift stage in Pikeville, Bo and Ron McCoy, the former, who once weighed more than 600 pounds, an itinerant preacher and Obesity Help’s spokesman from Georgia and the latter, a layminister and musician from North Carolina, presented Reo Hatfield with a foot-tall resin statue of a fireman carrying a child wrapped in his arms, on a wooden pedestal encased in glass. While Reo was not there to receive it – he was away on business – Kentucky governor Paul Patton and West Virginia governor Cecil Underwood were both present, along with four hundred Hatfields and McCoys.

In the face of the new conflict, one with higher stakes, Reo wanted to resolve the old one. ‘I wanted to show that even the Hatfields and McCoys would come together, because we believe in the same principles. I wanted to show that in America we are one family. All the different nationalities and different people, all the different fathers and mothers, our hearts became one, no matter whether from England or Africa.’

In this magnanimous act of his family’s former foes, Reo saw his chance to make a larger statement. He approached Bo and Ron and asked them if they would like to sign a formal peace treaty.

The treaty is signed by some seventy-five Hatfields and McCoys and by the sitting governors of Kentucky and West Virginia, who were presented with ceremonial Hatfield-McCoy shotguns.

 

Ten years later, Reo is intensely proud of the truce. He keeps photographs of the signing in his office and copies of the treaty to hand out to anyone who’s interested. ‘We are a great country. We have freedoms. Those freedoms will win in the end. I think 9/11 was a wake up call to remind people that our freedom does not come without a cost.’

 

As for the about-face in Hatfield-McCoy relations, it seems to be here to stay. ‘Reo Hatfield lives with integrity’, says Ron McCoy. ‘We’re real proud of him. We consider him family.’

 

Photograph by Ken Lund

To Stand in the Shadow
The Other 9/11