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Historicizing anthracite….

Had a wonderful lunch meeting today with Phil Mosley, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English & Comparative Literature at Penn State University.

We had an agenda……what Phil calls “historicizing anthracite”. But our inner Gaelic shone through, and over a few beers we wandered off into many semi-related areas as well. Life is so frenetic these days that I’d almost forgotten the simple pleasure of a grown-up conversation.

We started things off thusly….

How can one understand what he or she has become without extensive knowledge of where he or she has come from? There’s no such thing as a blank slate. We are who we are largely because of the environment we’re reared in. For better or worse. We inherit the inner workings of familial saints and sinners, and are largely left to our own devices in learning how to keep them apart so they don’t kill each other.

harry-e-breakerThis is history you don’t get in the classroom. Schools don’t teach your history. Theirs is more like the revolutionary war on Monday, civil war until mid-week, then by Friday the bomb is falling on Japan and we’re all living happily ever after. In school I learned absolutely nothing about the ground underneath my own feet.

What triggers the effort?

Is it literature? Art? Music? Historians? Or maybe a stray remark at dinner about a box of letters in the attic?


Often…the song travels fastest and furthest. Phil mentioned how Springsteen’s song “Youngstown” probably educated more people about the Ohio city’s role in our nation’s uneasy history than the collective works of 100 historians. My fascination with the history of wildfires began with the song “Cold Missouri Waters”, which told the devastating story of the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. For songwriters, the research triggers the song. For listeners, the song triggers the research. And so it goes….gloriously around and around.

My father told me stories…..of filling sacks with coal in the winter…..hanging around the sharp corners of the tracks, where sympathetic conductors would sometimes increase speed so that the coal would fall off the cars that were filled to the brim. I remember how a lone abandoned coal car sat atop a mountain of culm overlooking the road to his childhood home like a sentinel. I remember him telling me of covering the entrances to illegal mines with their family Christmas tree to keep the mine bosses off their scent.

All this put the hooks in me.

Do we embrace our own history? Or do we wish we could re-write it?

Ours is a place forged by immigrants fleeing unimaginable horrors, and thus willing to do the kinds of things we today might find….well…..unimaginable. To live half of their lives under the ground so that, just maybe, their kids might have it a little better. Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers and great-great grandfathers had to fight for everything. Nothing was given to them. They fought, and sometimes died, attempting to blunt the cold edge of an industry that valued the mules they worked beside more than it valued them. It’s so easy to take for granted that little boys don’t have to work 60 hours anymore…..and that an 8 hour day is plenty, thank you very much.

They fought and died for these things. Right here. They powered the nation……they fought and won its wars. Local names. On local gravestones.

And for this….what?

Many are weary of the past…..more proud of “The Office” than being known as some backwards coal-cracker. More folks make jokes than give thanks.

But still…..there’s something about this place…..something about the coal region’s concept of home. It’s why so many travel great distances to and from work…..to stay. Why so many who strain at the leash to get out…..wind up coming back. And it’s why one of our largest tourist attractions is a place, Centralia, that literally is not there anymore.

Bitterness is easy. Sentiment is hard. We manage both.

I want to learn more. I want to read more books about this place. I want to hear more songs about this place. I want to sit over more beers and have these types of conversations again and again. I want to talk it out….and I want to pass on what I’ve learned to my kids so that they can pass it along to theirs.

For too long we’ve been holed up inside…..phones in our faces……screeching at each other with our thumbs. Our partisan outrage almost seems scripted by now. We’ve forgotten that we can disagree without being disagreeable.

In a bit..




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