I finally got here. I’ve read about it (two outstanding books, one by David DeKok and the other by Joan Quigley, along with a stirring little documentary called The Town That Was, co directed by a past Dunmore, PA resident, no less), and it’s been the inspiration for a few songs over the years. A once vibrant mining town of 2000 residents, quite literally wiped off the face of the earth by a combination of epic bad luck, bureaucratic incompetence, and an unwillingness to face the unpleasantness rising from the ground outside the kitchen window. It’s a true American tragedy, and yesterday as we drove in the first thing we noticed was the couple who had set up a hot dog stand on the side of the road. Doing a nice little business, I might add. “2 for $4” is what their homemade sign said. I like that. Sounds a better deal than $2 each, no? We are nothing if not relentlessly resilient. And hopeful.
Tourists like me pick over the carcass of Centralia on a daily basic. We get there expecting to see one thing, and we fine quite another. (And we get hungry too, I suppose). I can’t explain the fascination, other than to say it’s there. It’s the concept of “home”, on steroids.
My traveling companion was my friend Mike Stevens. Mike is a professional wanderer (and noted TV reporter) so this sort of thing is old hat to him. He’d been to Centralia at least twice before over the years. As a matter of fact Mike has seemingly been everywhere at least twice before over the years. Driving up through Frackville and Ashland, we scarcely passed a dwelling where Mike hadn’t given a speech or judged a pie contest. His fame is unrelenting. But he tolerates me and finds me endlessly amusing. Plus, he agreed to drive.
I didn’t take this pic (thank you to author David DeKok for allowing me to use it)….but it gives you the general idea. What was, no longer is. There’s not much to see. This is the main drag. A very tidy, neatly laid out town in its day. We maneuvered through side streets. No street signs of course, but, eerily, the street and address numbers still register on GPS devices. So all afternoon I was standing in front of dwellings that exist only in the minds of global satellites. Mike noticed the curbs. “Unmistakable signs of civilization” he called them. Laid out in front of yards that were overgrown with trees. You could walk up driveways that led to nowhere. It was so quiet. The streets were like yours and mine. Cars. Children. Bikes. Pools. Laughter. Except they weren’t. A man walked past with his dog. He smiled. Very pleasant. Where had he come from? Where was he going? I wish I took his picture. Maybe he was a ghost.
Centralia is filled with ghosts. They haunt the town’s four cemeteries. Remarkably, all are immaculately cared for….still….as if making up for what the living were forced to leave behind (who pays for the upkeep?). A man was cutting the grass while we were there. He nodded politely at us. Many of the graves had recent flowers placed on them. This was clearly still home in perpetuity for many….and newer generations were doing the tending with no fuss.
And literally home to a few. Remarkably, some still refuse to leave. I think I saw two homes. One had a pool. I resisted the urge to gawk. Like most, I despise tourists unless I happen to be one. But as we drove past…..their stubbornness seemed almost sublime, and I suddenly admired the hell out of them. I wanted to run over and fist-bump the lot of them. “Fight the power” and all that. Home is where we say it is, eminent domain be dammed.
“Places like this make up the pulse up the country”, Stevens told me, and he ought to know, having seen a thousand of them. It reminded me of Lyndon Johnson’s quote about the Texas hill country, “…where the people know when you’re sick and care about when you die.” We focus on the large all the time…the loud. But when you sum up all of the small…..what you’re left with dwarfs the sky scrapers. But that takes time. And who’s got that these days? We’re not ignorant, really. We’re just lazy.
At one point during the day word was passed that a family driving a mini-van had gotten stuck on one of the trails (searching for the origin of the mine fire can be very interesting if you don’t know the lay of the land). Somebody alerted a local and in minutes he was there with his truck, pulling them free. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do when somebody is in trouble. That’s the way we’re supposed to treat others. The family thanked him (and us, as we arrived at the same time, proving way less useful….but it’s the thought that counts) and he simply smiled and shrugged. And then he was gone. Stevens said it again…almost under his breath. “Real people here….salt of the earth…”
(And then we saw this….and I thought, “damn right”..)
Centralia is still a home. From homes like this come the men who fight our wars, and build our buildings, and put out our fires, and tend to our nation’s memories. And this is the kind of place I come from too. And when you need help and somebody arrives, it’s places like this they’re probably coming from. Nixon was an asshole, but his term “the silent majority” was apt and still stands.
And it’s easy to laugh on the inside. To scoff. We can look rough around the edges. A bit unrefined. Frayed at the seams. Our bodies can look lived in….our clothes worn. We may neglect ourselves in order to take care of our children. But we are the reason we don’t need to make America great again. All we need is a little amplification. And a place to call home. Only ignorance and hate can take hard-earned greatness away. And I saw precious little of it on my visit here.
In a bit…
I lost my friend George Wesley today. Cancer stole him from us. Cancer is the devil. It is evil in its purest form. It seeks health, and its aim is destruction. It does not discriminate and it does not get sidetracked. It’s a bully that never backs down.
I received the news early this morning. Since then I’ve been engulfed in a sort of fog. I’ve been physically and mentally wandering….not getting anywhere either way.
You think you’re prepared, but you never are. The mind has an almost endless capacity for hoping. The great Woody Guthrie once called human beings great “hoping machine(s)”. I knew George was ill. Very ill. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that he wouldn’t, in some way, find a way to beat the shit out of this thing. Because some people are just born to live. Dying doesn’t even enter into the equation. I’m a walking, talking hoping machine. And George Wesley is one of the reasons. And today, I’ve been diminished. We all have. To be diminished. Is there anything more sad than that?
I loved him. I told him that the last time we spoke. He gave me infinitely more than I ever gave him. He was the most generous man alive. I suspect there’s a lot of us out there admitting that to ourselves tonight. George just engulfed you. He radiated like a summer firefly. He wrapped you in a hug and blessed you, and turned non-believers into believers. I’m telling you this. If there ain’t no heaven….somebody ought to invent the place. Because for George to be anywhere else right now would be a cosmic blunder.
He thanked us for the inspiration. Truth be told nobody ever heard George’s music without feeling uplifted……like a child trying out a trampoline for the first time. He bobbed and weaved and sang Jah’s praises and invited everybody along for the ride. His music was unconditional and spiritual. He could rock. He could roll. He could groove. He could bring the funk. And he did it all on the offbeat. He asked for nothing in return except humanity. Peace. Love. In many ways George was a complex man. But his message could not have been more simple.
When we cry, we do so mostly for ourselves. I’m a selfish prick sometimes. I want him here. I want to call him up….to write some more songs together….to weave our guitars together and find melodies and phrases and reasons to smile. I want to sit at his knee and watch his hands on the frets….to close my eyes and listen when the visual gets too overwhelming. I want to hear him laugh with and at me. I want to call him and hear that growl….”greetings”….on the other end of the phone. I want to be blessed by Jah and I don’t even know who the hell Jah is. I want to see that smile obliterate the need for any other lights in the room. I want my kids to know him better and longer. I want my friend back. I’m selfish. For ME. My tears today were self-pity. I’m guilty. But I’m not sorry. I feel like Morgan Freeman in the Shawshank Redemption. “I guess I just miss my friend”.
George deserved more than this world gave him. Much more. All he did was give. All the world did was take. George lived with that. He left songs on everybody’s lips and smiles on their faces. And then he was alone, and life rolled the dice and whisked him away because she can be a dirty bitch sometimes.
Since the day I was born George Wesley has been in this world. Tomorrow will be the first full day he’s not here. It’s like a hole in the musical ozone layer. I have memories. And I have the music. That has to be enough. It doesn’t feel like it is, but it has to be.
When you grind life down to its powder, all it really consists of are the moments that you can remember. The rest is lost in the ether. The word “unforgettable” is dangerous, because forcing a memory and actually having one is the difference between knowing a phone number and repeating one you just heard over and over again so you can quick dial it before it’s gone.
With George nothing was forced. He was unforgettable for one reason. Because I’ll never forget him.
In peaceful water that’s where I’ll be
With eyes closed I don’t need to see
The hurt we bring on each other
Bless up my sister and my brother
In a bit..
Before there was always grey area. We at least had that.
But that’s gone. Philando Castile was executed at point blank range for a broken tail-light. Spin it one way. Spin it the other. You’ll end up in the same place. He was no threat. He was shot point blank 4 times while reaching for his car registration. His fiance sat next to him in the car. Her 4 year old daughter was in the back seat. Based on how agitated and crazed the cop acted, it’s a wonder he didn’t shoot the woman and child as well. Castile’s fiancee pulled out her cell phone and recorded live video of him dying. One of the most horrific things you’ll ever see. America, 2016.
Castile was a legal gun owner with a concealed permit. He did exactly what he was supposed to do. Announced he was legally carrying. Clearly. No grey area. Didn’t matter. Gun advocates are strangely silent. America, 2016.
Dallas police officer Brent Thompson was killed by a sniper. A fucking sniper. Thompson was married 2 weeks ago. Spin it one way. Spin it the other. You’ll end up in the same place.
One man died because he was a black male. The other died because he was a white cop.
Is it even worth pointing out that neither fit the stereotype they were killed over? It should be, so I just said it. But I’d be shouted down on TV. Eaten alive. I’d look weak and silly. Both sides justify the unjustifiable. Those who point this out get run over in both directions.
If Castile was white, he’d be alive now. Most likely, he wouldn’t have been stopped by the police in the first place. If he was? White guy….with white fiancee next to him. Behind them a 4 year old white baby in a car seat. A cop is gonna blast away when he reaches for his car registration? In fucking Minnesota?
And, put bluntly, if Thompson were black, the rifle scope would have passed him by. Because he didn’t fit the profile.
Hate does strange things. And it makes for strange bedfellows.
Castile mattered. For a few hours. But once that sniper rifle opened up, he became just another statistic. Because America, 2016 can’t handle nuance. We are too divided to find fault on our own side.
It has to be one story, or the other story. It can’t be both. There can only be one headline. And that headline is screaming right now. Cops were picked off like ducks in an American city, 2016. That’s what it has come to. I’ve never experienced anything like this in my lifetime.
We cannot handle nuance. We shout too loud. Facts become pesky. Like mosquitoes.
And then I saw this photo. And I thought, if we’re gonna put blinders on, maybe we should do so while staring at this photo. For a few seconds. A few minutes. Hours.
What do you see?
You know….maybe that’s America, 2016 too. Maybe, when the haters stop hating and the shouters stop shouting and the marchers stop marching….when we all collect our collective breaths, we can live and die together. We can comfort each other and ignore the fuck out of color and religion and class and geographical boundaries…..we can breathe the same air on this small planet and together cherish our children’s futures. And perhaps wrap our heads around the fact that the man who suggested we try something like this previously was killed. By a sniper. In Dallas. Hate can win battles but the war still rages. There’s still a chance. I can see it in this picture. Can you?
My eldest was born with the empathy gene. She feels the lash on the backs of others. At times like this she asks me, over and over…”why?” I stutter. I start to reply and then stop, because I realize that nothing rational is going to come out. She’s starting college in the fall. She’ll be away. I want to steal her and hide her and keep her from all of this. I want to block her ears and cover her eyes and cherry-pick her adventures.
But no. It’s those that feel the lash on another’s back that are in this picture. And if we’re going to heal this fracture, it’s those who must do the doctoring. The world needs her every bit as much as I do.
In a bit…