Thursday, December 9, 2010


Note: the following is a reflective autobiographical essay, written as an example for my students in an English composition class at Nashville State Community College. It may be read in conjunction with the blog entries for October 4 and September 16, which were written for the same purpose. Together they form a window into my life as a child and young man.


By Ken Craven

He dreaded going back home. But he was going.

“Back home,” a bite too big to swallow. Then he smelled the burning, as if he were buried neck deep in an ash heap, unable to move his arms. The smell of burning bituminous coal, especially in its cheaper grades and even cheaper relations—gob, tailings, sludge, slurry, and slag—was a memory path back into home, which was a place hard to focus. They had lived in several houses, all close to the railroad. All close to coal.

There was that day when a garbage truck blundering through the alley behind the coal pile where he was playing knocked over the heavy fence, pinning him between two beams. He lay there, his lungs heaving through tears, the bugs crawling over his eyelids, his face jammed against the coal dust and cinders. That was home too.

He held the wheel tight as his pickup rolled around the curves. He did not know if he could swallow home whole this time but he knew the roads he had chosen would take him deep into the unavoidable memories.

He could not recall asking many questions of his parents. It was more a constant hungry feeling of questions he did not know how to ask. Why is fire? If God is all power, what is the thunder of the steam locomotive? The trains that carry the tanks and cannons and soldiers and sailors east to Norfolk, what do they have to do with my uncle sweating with malaria in a hotel?

One night they stared out the window through the lace curtains his mother tried so desperately to keep white and ungrimed by the cinders from chuffing smokestacks. Sitting warm by the clanking radiator with her and his sister, he watched balls of fire burst upward from the burning Sunbeam Bread bakery on the north side, across the railroad yard, one at a time, like the shells of war.

“When will we go to Kentucky?” was the closest he could get to a real question.

“In the summer,” his mother would answer, but the answer made no sense, for summers here and there were different things, like smoke and flowers.

Now, driving up past the breaks of the Big Sandy, he could not recall that St. Augustine, the philosopher of memory, had much to say on the memory of smells. His “burning, burning, burning, to Carthage then I came” was the burning of lust, the destroyer of his soul. Somewhere ahead, in the very center of the coal kingdom, a small church in Spanish gothic style, was another of the centers of his soul. The two burnings somehow converged for him, the one having awakened as he, daily, inhaled the choking brown smoke of the hell that coal produced. And envisioned the fires of hell that the priest and nuns pictured as endless and sure punishments for mortal sins. The image the nuns enjoyed giving was a mountain of sand, one tiny grain of which was moved by a bird each day, and after a million years of this, hell would have just begun. But sand or slag, they were mountains in his nightmares, and when he was found sleep walking, he had to be waked from his counting.

The decision to turn came with the sudden force of a magnet. The quickest and best way from central Tennessee was north through Kentucky on the interstates, but at Lexington he suddenly turned east on the Mountain Parkway and drove grimly toward Pikeville. From there it would be a hundred miles on two-lane roads through one hollow after another until he entered the dark world of southern West Virginia. Dark, end of the world. He could think of it no other way. Even growing up on the streets of Bluefield, West Virginia, the railroad hub of the coal fields, the area south and west of the city was always black and harsh and evil. When he read the Lord of the Rings decades later, he already knew Mordor: it was southwest of Bluefield. The old wizard of Middle Earth came out the industrial wastes of his youth and the trenches of WW I knowing the twentieth century would be a story of refuse and refusals.

The road home would pass near Buffalo Creek, where a mountain of slag collapsed from sheer exhaustion in 1973, releasing a furious 30-ft-high wall of of slimy, oily sludge into a long hollow, and washing hundreds of homes and people into oblivion. On a return home that year, he came from technicolor Puerto Rico to meet a capitalist version of sin: the refuse dam created by neglect and denial. Refuse: refusal.

Once a year his parents would take him at eleven at night to the Norfolk & Western station to catch No. 3 to Cincinnati, a hundred or so miles west through the coal mining lands. A hundred tunnels. Towns black except for a few yellow street lights. Rattling bridges over the black waters of the Coal River. The red glow of thousands of coke ovens. And in the morning, from the great Union Station in Cincinnati, either the L&N or the Southern (The Southern Serves the South) into the bluegrass of Louisville or Danville, a bright, sunny world of green rivers and tobacco fields. Heaven.

The yellow GMC bus came down the street, early morning, when he was out to deliver papers on the east side. Where Boone turned into Wyoming, he could see them, miners in work hats with lights, their faces grimy. White eyes and teeth. Like black-face minstrels, like Silas Greene from New Orleans, whose train car came once a year to do shows.

“How come their faces are dirty in the morning?” “I guess they figure there’s no need to wash until Saturday,” his mother answered.

He wondered what their sheets looked like. When he collected for the paper at their houses, the insides smelled yellow and sour. He could imagine these miners entering the mine elevator, going down into the blackness of the earth. Across the valley, a Mallet engine was struggling up the grade, a hundred seventy-five ton cars in tow, westward bound. The question in his mind would not form into words. So he imagined shell bursts on the ridge on the north side. It was something to do, lob a newspaper, imagine a shell burst.

In Kentucky, everything was different: the sky, the hills, the smells. Nothing was jagged or grinding. Back then he would have been hard put to say the differences. In Bluefield there was always the sound of the trains, the billowing clouds of smoke from the smokestacks, the night glare of fireboxes, the chuff-chuffing of engines on the long-haul grades, the clanging of bells and shrieking of steam whistles, the endless banging of couplings, and always the gritty cinders hitting your eyes as you inhaled the smell of burning coal.

Sometime when he was four or five the whole family sometimes crouched in the living room by the Westinghouse radio. They called it a black out. They said Hitler had placed the railroad center of Bluefield on his bombing list. They listened to the news on the local radio station while they could still hear the switch engines on the tracks ding-dinging their small bells as they hustled cars into long lines, making up trains for east and west. Finally, after an age of waiting, the steam whistles blew on the rail yard and the lights were back on.

When you passed the church, you were supposed to cross yourself and if you wanted to, to “make a visit.” Inside it was dark but in the sanctuary the red lamp was always burning. The church was cold in the winter, sometimes you could see your breath. He was there in the Tabernacle, waiting for you. On All Souls Day if you prayed five Our Fathers and five Hail Mary’s and five Glory Be’s, a soul in purgatory could be released into heaven and the angels would sing. The pews were hard wood and your knees hurt in the November cold. He felt guilty for only staying a while. But the rustle of coats and coughing did not obscure the one thing: He was there if the sanctuary lamp burned, and He knew what was going on inside you. When he passed the church to deliver his newspapers, he knew the red lamp was lighted in the dark church. In the rail yard, you could sometimes see the fires burning hot and red in the locomotive fire boxes. At home, he crept out in the morning and lit the fire in the fireplace grate; first the newspaper and wood crackled, then the coal caught fire and smoked, then the red warm glow of heat reached the clothes, which he and his sister hung on chairs to heat before they dressed for Sacred Heart school where, in every room, the heart of Jesus burned in His chest.

When he drove into Bluefield from the southeast, passing Cinder Bottom where the whorehouses and honky tonks had served the coal fields for generations, he went right up to Giles Street. It was early morning and as usual the fogs rolled down into hollows or rose up in mists from the springs and creeks. The railroad was still there and still busy with long coal trains but the great Mallet locomotives were gone. In their place the dull, boring diesels throbbed without poetry or steam.

It’s a short, twisting street, a few city blocks long. Mostly railroad workers once lived here, brakeman and conductors, their houses neat with small gardens and grape arbors. Now it looked like an apocalyptic movie. The house where he had lived until he was eleven, a grand old three-story with attics and mysterious cellars, was mostly gutted, trash piled in the yard, abandoned car bodies half-buried in the ground. Farther up, a line of houses that appeared to have been bombed from the air. Crack dens, rat-infested apartments. When he got out and tried to walk the street to collect memories, a few homies jangled out, their bodies shaking and jiving, and shouted obscenities at him. “What you doing up here, honky? Get your ass out, now, white boy.” A few rocks and beer cans flew past his head. The lore he knew from his sister was that this was a lost zone, even the cops would only drive through once in a while. The yard where he had played and where his dad had built a large chicken coop to feed them during WW II was gone. The neighbors were gone. The streetcars were gone. Sanity was gone. There was only the dull, hopeless throbbing of the diesels and the hatefulness of the people who lived there.

He stopped at Sacred Heart Church which was, barely, still there. When he had been an altar boy, he had heard Bishop Swint preach one Sunday. Pointing to the columns and the soaring apse, he said “don’t ever let anyone change this church. This church is one of the most beautiful specimens of architecture in the diocese.” Did he know something in the early 1950s we didn’t know? After Father Burke, the parish had been afflicted with a series of priests who cared nothing for the Spanish gothic and less for the Church Universal. Like many other desecrators and wreckovators in the wake of Vatican II, they had thrown beautiful vestments and chalices and other sacred things into trash heaps. He was only able to enter because a few people were cleaning, talking at the top of their voices in a church that had always been hushed with reverence when he was growing up.

“Isn’t the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle? The lamp is lit.”

A man with a vacuum cleaner laughed. “There’s no liturgy now. We’re cleaning.” What a joke. He knew there would be no silence during the “liturgy” either, for the happy-clappy moderns detested it as a medieval relic.

He made a quick tour. He already knew the story. The magnificent carved wood confessional had been turned into a bathroom, the ornate altar rail where he had knelt for Holy Communion was gone. Atrocious banners covered up what was left of art. What had threatened to be the worst had been averted when one of the priests was found to be unfaithful to his vow of chastity and had been moved to another parish. A flaming “charismatic,” he had desired to completely renovate the church by placing the altar in the center of the nave so that he could spin about on stiletto heels, communing with the faithful in all directions like a dervish. He had also removed the huge crucifix from the apse, though a few irate old-timers had restored it while he was out of town.

The bell tower was sealed off as condemned,the bell ropes he had seen lift old Joe the Sicilian janitor off the floor on Easter dangled uselessly amid cobwebs. A whole series of priests had confused the parishioners with theological cobwebs as much as they had garbled the liturgy and wrecked the architecture. The four panels on either side of the Tabernacle were still there, though, ignored and isolated: the angels held tablets reading “I have loved, O Lord/The Beauty of Thy House/And the Place/Where Thy Glory Dwelleth.”

There are many kinds of refuse, he reflected as he drove toward his sister’s decaying house. The industrial waste and the strip mines. The human waste he knew on the streets, the sick and wounded from the mines, the wounded from the church, the wounded lands. He thought also of his father, dead at 55 of acute emphysema. Like hundreds of thousands of miners, he had been viewed as expendable by the corporation he worked for.

Refuse. The story of the Appalachian highlands—but also the story of modern man. Soon, with abortion and infanticide at one end and euthanasia at the other, human beings would be unable to tell the difference between life and death. Heaps of fetuses and aged bodies for the crematoria.

He wanted to kneel in a real church and pray to Him, Lord, have mercy on us.

©Copyright 2010 R. Kenton Craven