“This is gonna get ugly.”--Kayak Dude, 2008
When I was a sprat of 6, 7, maybe 8 back when channel surfing meant adjusting the tin foil appendages on the rabbit ears connected to the smallish black and white television, I resided in the Derby/Ansonia Valley in Connecticut. A valley much like this Wyoming Valley of ours.
And while I was unwillingly playing the part of a punching bag, which step-children so often did and still do, I desperately wanted to move to Wilkes-Barre and live out my many remaining days with my grandparents, and the other now deceased folks that constitute my incomplete family tree.
When I was in Wilkes-Barre, nobody hit me. Nobody chastised me for being what I obviously was--a cantankerous, forgetful and inquisitive little boy. My grandparents were, at least for me, that proverbial lighthouse on the hill that guided wayward vessels to safety. And I loved them for what they brought to what, without them, was a life lacking any semblance of domestic tranquility. They brought a modicum of stability to what was an otherwise scattered and shell-shocked existence.
But, just as soon as my mom went and filed for a divorce from the abusive step-dad, and just as soon as we had happily settled into their home--638 N. Washington Street--the agita that was my next few years in a strange, coal-scarred landscape was cemented into my consciousness by my yarn-spinning grandfather.
Many times, I sat on their front porch with two, count em’, two long, long, long-time congressman while they talked politics with my grandfather. And as a kid bored with such unimportant things, I’d pepper them with questions about the burning mountain in full view for all to see from our vantage point.
And in response, they’d usually give me the short version of the history of this fast-failing area that once fueled this country’s industrial revolution.
As in, men used to mine coal. Nobody mined coal anymore. The mountain was burning because the coal beneath it was set ablaze. And, then they got into the subsidence stories, stories that my grandfather could expound upon, expound upon and then expound upon to the point of hilarity.
The ground opened and swallowed a donkey. The ground opened and swallowed a car on Kidder Street. The ground opened and took down a section of the sewing factory that once overlooked Guthrie Field. The ground opened and swallowed some guy east of somewhere over there.
Needless to say, by the time they put me in charge of maintaining the very first coal furnace I had ever laid eyes on, I was more afraid of the musty-smelling dirt floor in that spooky, poorly-lit, half-crawl of a basement than I was that ages-old iron behemoth, that shuttering, that belching and that steam-venting nightmare that no unsuspecting refugee of a kid who had spent what should have been his formative years in another state should ever have to endure.
The ground would open and swallow you. If the subsidence’s didn’t get you, the furnace would surely go and explode before you could scurry away from it and up the steps to well-lit safety. The mountain was on fire. Just some ten years prior, as it was told to me, the ground opened and swallowed the entire Susquehanna River.
What’s not to like for a relocated sprat of 10-years-old?
My point is as follows.
I realize I was not the only kid that once relocated from an otherwise sane world to a backwards, coal-scarred landscape that just might shake loose one day and eat me.
I understand that, while no other town I know of once had it‘s river upped and swallowed by it‘s industrial past, it still could happen again being that the fracturing of bedrock beneath a severely mined-out region does not appear to be a concern to the elected, the appointed and those who would grease them to look the other way.
And I know that to suggest that the current goings-on remind me of the ugliest of my boyhood memories not brought on by a fist or a zircon-encrusted leather belt could and would sound foolhardy, if not, alarmist to most.
But when my mind wanders back to those black and white days when dairy products were waiting for us at the back door when we finally climbed from beneath our quilts in the morning and warmed our hands over the coal stove in the kitchen, never once did my grandfather, or anyone else for that matter tell me that the mines would open and swallow our water supply.
No, I figure that would have been an enduring environmental disaster brought on by the unchecked industrialism and the rampant greed that pockmarked this area and our collective mindset that even he could not imagine.
What I used to think was the ultimate in environmental ugliness and industrial degradation--the Anthracite Region-- now pales in comparison to the ugliness that might currently be afoot in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
When the rush to the thousands-of-feet deep natural gas pockets compromises (swallows) the supply of potable water, the ugliness that once was will seem nostalgic, even preferable to the ugliness that may soon be.
And to those who would take an apathetic approach to this most pressing of issues, I would ask the following, which Francis Vincent Zappa asked some forty-five years ago: “What’s the ugliest part of your body?”
Or your mind?