“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

On my ninth birthday, I rode my four-wheeler through the large muddy fields on our family farm, splashing in and out of the mud puddles created by the melting snow. My future was far from my mind, but even at that age I remember contemplating the world and my place in it. In Appalachia, opportunity ebbs and flows with the demand for steel and coal, and in 1992, many of the factories that once provided the community’s lifeblood sat dormant along the banks of the Ohio River. Subsumed by poverty, the "soft bigotry of low expectations" had crept its way into the social construct. Even as children, our place in the world looked immutable. Fortunately for me, that changed when two fighter jets flew low and fast over me. I was awestruck by their majesty and wondered if maybe, just maybe, I had what it takes to pilot such a machine.

Turns out, I did.

I will always remember where I came from and will forever be a champion for small town kids with bigtime dreams, all the underdogs living on dirt roads and in the “holler,” for the ones whose dreams scare their teachers, and for the ones nobody believes in.

That’s a promise, ya’ll.

— Joe Stenger