The Neon Days Festival is part county fair, part heritage and music showcase, and part midway. Every September, the people of Neon celebrate their place in the world. In the spirit of harvest festivals everywhere, it’s a chance to be thankful for making it another year, and to honor the things that carried you along.
Neon has seen its share of hard times, and they just keep coming. There’s little work in the area, and the mines that still operate cause as much trouble as good – blasting knocks trailers and houses off their foundations, wells drop. The high school is scheduled to close down for good in 2005. Students will be bussed ten miles up the road to the new all-county consolidated high school in Whitesburg. Like a lot of rural towns, Neon is suffering a major prescription drug abuse problem, meth labs spring up overnight, and crimes that were once unimaginable, burglaries and robberies, are now common-place.
Maybe it was this context, coupled with an acute awareness of the world created by Peter Edelman’s talks, and the words of Kennedy and the Kentucky citizens from 1968, that made Neon Days itself such a powerful experience. There were life-threatening foods - deep-fried Oreos and deep-fried pickles, booths selling Confederate flags and ninja swords, and, across the street, a talent show in the Miner’s Memorial Park – amazing bluegrass musicians, nervous young girls singing ballads, and boys goofing on “O, Brother, Where Art Thou?”
RFK in EKY was honored to be allowed use of the City Hall during Neon Days – right on Main Street, in the center of all the activities – we set up memorabilia, photos, and all the protesters’ signs and bags from the hearing the day before. After the Head Start discussion, and before the Artist Talk, everyone stopped to watch the Neon Days Parade.
The parade lasted almost an hour, and contained every element that the people of Neon value in their struggle against decline. It was an act of faith, a procession of the things that make life worth living. Dozens of beauty queens and kings from age zero (that’s what the sign said, Wee Miss Neon, category ages 0 – 6 months) on up to the Homecoming Court from the high school. A Sunday School group, ages six and seven, enacting the Passion of the Christ in the bed of a pick-up truck – two centurions, a couple of praying women, and a little boy crucified and dripping fake blood from his forehead and side. Little tiny baton twirlers and pom-pons, bigger cheerleaders, and baseball players in all their awkwardness and grace. A few people on horseback and many more on ATV’s, volunteer firemen and their trucks, emergency medical workers, constables and police. A couple of political candidates, and veterans in uniform. All of them threw candy, and people watching from the sidewalks carried on conversations with their friends in the parade as they drove by. Almost everything in the parade, and all the people, too, were dressed in the purple and gold colors of the Fleming-Neon High School Pirates. It was a proud affair.
These were the voices that Kennedy came to hear in 1968, the experts he sought out: they are still talking, still have a lot to say.