When he graduated from the consolidated high school in Welch in 1987, Leach drifted. He went to Florida and worked for the railroad. He returned home and worked in convenience stores. He held a job for 11 years for Turner Vision, a company that took orders for satellite dishes. He lost the job when the company was sold. He worked at Welch Community Hospital for six months and then as an assistant manager of the McDowell 3, the Welch movie theater. His struggle with drugs, which he acknowledges but does not want to discuss in detail, led to his losing his position at the theater. He is preparing to start a course to become licensed as a Methodist minister and serves the two local United Methodist churches, neither of which muster more than about a half dozen congregants on a Sunday. The 20 theology classes, which cost $300 a class, are held on weekends in Ripley, about four hours from Gary.
Leach is seated in his small living room with Hovack, who bought the house when his home was destroyed by flooding, and Heizer. Hovack was given $40,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Authority to relocate. Heizer tells us how he almost lost his life from an overdose a few weeks before.
The three men are the sons and grandsons of coal miners. None of them worked in the mines.
"My dad worked with his dad," Heizer says, nodding towards Leach. "My grandfather died in the coal mines in 1965. He had a massive heart attack. Forty-nine years old."
"It was good growin' up in McDowell County twenty-plus years ago," Leach says.
"Except for when the mines would go on strike," adds Hovack. "That was rough. I can remember that."
"Welch used to be a boomin' place," Vance says. "When you went to Welch you really thought you went somewhere."
"Used to be about three thee-ay-ters in Welch many, many years ago," Leach says.
"All them stores," says Hovack. "I can remember my mom goin' to take me to Penny's and Collins. An' H&M. But when the U.S. Steel cleaning plant went out, that was it for this county."
"I went to school here in Gary, and when the plant closed down I was 'bout twelve or thirteen and my friends in school would say, "My dad and mom, we're movin' 'cause they have to go look for work," Hovack says.
"You seen a lot of people depressed after that, wonderin' how they were gonna make it, how they were gonna pay their bills, how they were gonna live, how they were gonna pay their mortgage," says Leach. "It was devastating. A lot of people didn't have a good education, so there wasn't anything else to turn to. The coal mines was all they ever knew. My dad, he didn't finish high school. He quit in his senior year, went right into the mine."
Heizer speaks in the slowed cadence of someone who puts a lot of medication into his body. He recently lost his car after crashing it into a fence. His life with his two roommates is sedentary. The three men each have a television in their bedrooms and two more they share, including the big-screen television that, along with an electric piano for Hovack, were bought with Heizer's first disability check. The men spent the $20,000 from the check in a few days.
"I became disabled back in late 2006," Heizer tells us. "I had degenerative disc disease and I hurt my back. I was workin' at this convenience store. They knew that I had a back injury, but yet they had me come in on extra shifts and unload the truck. Now I've got four discs jus' layin' on top of each other, no cushion between them. For three years I lived here without an income, and my dad helped support me, and then last November I finally was awarded my disability."
Heizer, who is gay, saw his drug addiction spiral out of control four years ago after his boyfriend committed suicide. He tells us he has been struggling with his weight -- he weighs 324 pounds -- as well as diabetes, gout, and kidney stones. These diseases are common in southern West Virginia and have contributed to a steady rise in mortality rates over the past three decades.
OxyContin takes a few hours to kick in when swallowed. If the pills are crushed, mixed with water, and injected with a syringe, the effect is immediate. Heizer says that after the drug companies began releasing pills with a rubbery consistency, they could not be ground down. Heizer heated the newer pills in a microwave and snorted them -- leading to his recent overdose. It took place at his mother's house. He went into renal failure. He stopped breathing. His kidneys shut down. He was Medevac'd to a hospital in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, where he stayed for four days.
"I was just sittin' around watching TV and started aspiratin'," Heizer says flatly. "The medication was goin' into my lungs. You gurgle with every breath. You are drownin', basically. I remember walkin' down my mom's steps and gettin' in the ambulance. I remember at Welch, they put me on the respirator and then transferred me. After they put me on the respirator, I stopped breathing on my own. And then I remember in Charleston wakin' up an' they had my hands restrained so I wouldn't pull the tubes out. I had a real close call."