Over time, most people begin to revise the past a little, romanticize it, pretty it up. I may do so myself when I come to the later 1960s, but my memories of the ’50s and early ’60s seem to come through without a rosy glow. But I do wonder how much of history one can credit, once the events have passed out of the direct memory of the living.
When we moved here, the village burned coal.
The roar of a ton of anthracite pouring down
a steel ramp to the coal bin is burned in my brain.
The molten heat on my face when feeding
the furnace, shaking down ash, the sulfuric reek
that stained the air, still is burned in my brain.
Our driveway was cinders, a few feet longer
each year, and more ash piled by the fence.
The school track was a quarter-mile of cinders.
And the soot — snow gray by end of day,
clean curtains gray by end of week, salmon
sandstone blackened; windows opaque with it.
At night I listened for the ready flight, the B-52
with its nuclear cargo primed to fly over the Pole,
circling all night from its base on Lake Champlain.
School was duck and cover. Same for kids in Russia
in their uneasy village, wrapped in its own fug of coal.
There was lead in the house paint, mercury
in the ash, DDT in the dirt, water and drumsticks.
Half the men in town had PTSD from WW1,
or 2, or Korea, though they had no name for it.
They drank at the hotel bar and worked themselves
into heart attacks for overtime pay at Alcoa.
That village has blown away now like coal haze
on the wind. Coal cellars long remodeled
into rec rooms, laundries, or man caves.
Grass has grown over the ash piles as rain
leached out the toxins and leaf litter rotted.
The smokestacks, jobs and the old folks — gone.
Memory, these cinders of the past, are all
that remain And when we who remember pass —
what? The tales of trench war and bootleggers
will join tales of loggers, river drivers, quarrymen,
of midwives, farriers, nurses and wheelwrights —
those already vanished into history seldom-read.
Note: unpublished draft