What was, no longer is…..
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…