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 in, this village burned coal. The landslide
roar of a full ton of anthracite pouring down a steel ramp
into the coal bin is burned in my brain. The molten
heat on my face when feeding the furnace and shaking
down the ash, the sulfuric reek of it that stained the air
from October through April still is burned in my brain.
Our driveway was built of coal ash, a couple feet
longer every year, and more ash piled by the back fence.
At school, the track was a full quarter-mile of cinders.
And all that smoke — snow gone gray by end of day,
clean curtains gray by end of week, salmon sandstone
and red brick blackened; windows opaque with soot.
At night I listened for the rumble of the ready flight,
the B-52 with its nuclear cargo ever primed to fly over
the Pole. It ran circles all night long from the SAC base
on Lake Champlain. And at school we ducked and covered,
assumed a similar bomber kept kids in Russia from sleep.
I pictured their village, too, wrapped in its own fug of coal.
There was lead in the house paint then, mercury in the ash,
DDT in the dirt and the water and the chicken drumsticks.
Half the men in town had PTSD from WW1, or 2, or Korea,
though they had no name for what was wrong. They drank
and smoked at the hotel bar and worked themselves into
heart attacks for overtime pay in the pot room at Alcoa.
That world, that village has blown away like the coal haze
on a fresh west wind. The old cellars have been remodeled
into rec rooms, laundries, man caves. Grass has grown over
the ash piles as decades of rain have leached out the toxins
and leaf litter has rotted down to soil. Smokestacks are gone,
as are the jobs that kept them smoking, and the old folks, too.
Memory, these cinders of the past, are all that remain
of them. And when we who remember have passed —
what? The tales of trench warfare and of bootleggers
will join the lore of loggers and river drivers, quarrymen
and midwives, charcoal burners and farriers, nurses
and wheelwrights, who bled into histories seldom-read.