The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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I was eleven the summer the fire broke out. In the spring of 1967 my mother, my father, and I had moved to Umberland, Pennsylvania. An old miners’ neighborhood sprawled across the southern half of town, and its residents burned their garbage in a used-up strip mine, a pit of shale and sandstone scraped clean by bulldozers. The people who lived in the surrounding hills used it too. They loaded their pickups with garbage and rusted stoves and discarded furniture that swayed as the trucks rumbled over potholes and railroad tracks. They dumped their trash in the pit, doused it with gasoline, and then set it ablaze and left it to burn. To my mother these were strange, forbidding people who seemed to have given up on the world. Their dark houses sat back from the curved and wooded roads my father drove me down on our history expeditions. They gave us narrow looks when we encountered them, and my mother longed for the places we had left as my father moved from job to job.
Then one day in the middle of June burning trash dropped through a hole that had opened up in the ground. The town and everything surrounding it had been thoroughly undermined, the earth so honeycombed with mining tunnels that the ground sometimes gave way, claiming a pine tree or several feet of paved road or a backyard sandbox. In this case the burning garbage dropped into an abandoned mine and ignited a vein of anthracite coal. Local fire crews were called to put the fire out, and for a while they thought they had, but it erupted again several days later, having spread into the tunnels — some three hundred acres of them — that ran beneath the streets and storefronts and homes.
All that summer, dark, yellowish smoke rose from the strip mine, nearly two miles from where we lived. By August we saw smoke above sinkholes closer to home, and this worried my grandmother, whose house we were living in. My mother obliged her by keeping me inside most of the day. My grandmother believed the air was clearest in the morning, so I was allowed to ride my bike up and down the block until I was called in for lunch. Then I spent the afternoon reading the books my father had assigned me and waiting for him to come home from work.
One day, during a wave of heat and tropical humidity, I stood at the front door on my tiptoes to look out the window, and I spied my father a block or so away. He was tall and lean and handsome — my grandmother, his mother, called him “my Gregory Peck” — and I admired the way he could appear at once casual and resolute. While others moved as though weighted down by the weather, stopping now and then to wipe their brows and complain, my father kept his shoulders squared, his strides crisp and even and long. No August heat or humidity or underground fire was going to impede him.
“Do you see him out there?” my grandmother asked me. She was taking the curlers out of her hair. Each afternoon, while I read, she set her hair and did her makeup and chose a dress to greet my father in. Her doting annoyed my mother, who was at the stove in her apron, stirring the dishes she’d made for supper, trying to keep them warm without ruining them, because my father was late again.
“I shouldn’t even serve this to a dog,” my mother said. She came into the front room, pulling her blouse away from her damp skin. Her clothes hung loose on her. She had lost weight since we’d arrived in Umberland. She was still pretty, her hair dark and thick, but she sometimes worried out loud that she was starting to look like those Appalachian women you saw in pictures: poor and craggy faced, wringing their hands over another disaster.
Outside, one of our neighbors, a thin, work-worn man in a plaid shirt too heavy for the weather, approached my father, and my father’s face transformed. A smile spread across his lips, and he extended his hand. (“The secret to salesmanship,” he had once told me, “is to convince your client that he is absolutely the only person you could ever possibly care about.”)
“Look at your father,” my grandmother said, leaning in close to see out the window. Her skin smelled of powder and lilac. “Bernie Parrish has taken quite a shine to him.” She was referring to my father’s boss, the man who ran what was left of the mining operation that had dug the tunnels and removed the coal for nearly a hundred years. “Your father is next in line. That’s what everybody says.”
As my father listened to our neighbor with an expression of abiding interest, he slid his hands into his trouser pockets and crossed his ankles as though leaning against an invisible wall.
“Or he could become mayor,” my grandmother said. “People have always loved him.”
“If that’s really him,” my mother said with a huff. “Come and set the table,” she said to me, “though this is hardly worth eating.”
I watched my father take one hand out of his pocket and put it on the neighbor’s shoulder. It was a gesture that seemed meant to comfort while at the same time making it clear that this man was smaller than my father. I imagined my father not as a logistics manager, which was his job then, but as a statesman. I had been reading about Ramses the Second, and I saw something of my father in Ramses’s staggering victories and the awe his name inspired.
His conversation finished, my father started into the street to cross it toward home, and a car whizzed by, honking at him. He took several quick steps backward, stumbled onto the curb, and grasped the lamppost to steady himself. He watched the car drive off, stunned by its sudden appearance.
“Martin,” my mother said to me, “set the table. Now.”
My father had barely come through the front door when my grandmother hugged him. She was more than a foot shorter than he was, and he bent to kiss the top of her head. Then he took her by the hand and twirled her, which made her laugh.
My father kissed my mother’s cheek, but she made a face. “If you can’t be here by 5:30,” she said, “don’t ask me to have supper ready at 5:30.”
“He has a very important job,” my grandmother said.
“Now, there’s no need to exaggerate, Mother,” my father cut in. “I do sometimes get held up. I apologize, Janet. Shall we eat?”
My father sat at the head of the table and asked me what I had learned from the day’s reading. I put my fork down to answer his questions, and I folded my hands over my dinner plate in an imitation of adult decorum as I reported on Ramses the Second’s victorious battle against the Sherden pirates and his first and second campaigns against the Syrians.
“Did you read how the defeated Sherdens became Ramses’s bodyguards? That’s more than military might; that’s leadership — salesmanship.”
“Let him eat his supper,” my mother said. “He waited for an hour with his nose pressed against that window. He must be starving.”
My father considered this. Then he leaned toward me and said carefully, “No salesman, no matter how talented, can ever sell you something he doesn’t truly believe in. He’s got to believe it all the way down deep in the heart of him.”
After supper my father rose from the table and told me to help my mother and grandmother clean up the kitchen. Then he shook my hand and gave me a nod that seemed the essence of manly approval before taking his whiskey down from the cabinet and retiring to his study — which had been his own father’s study — to drink and read in peace.
Several years earlier we had lived in Seattle, and my father had sold planes for Boeing. “What I do all day is answer the phone,” he’d said to me then. “Talk about a waste of a salesman’s talent. I don’t even have to call them; they call me.” Pan Am called him, and TWA, and American Airlines, and so did the U.S. Navy and Air Force. The 727 had just rolled out. Anyone who could read, my father was fond of saying, knew the name Boeing as an icon of engineering. But to say they built the most powerful, best-performing, safest aircraft in the world was to miss the point. Boeing was making parts for rocket ships too. They weren’t just giving the world its most inspiring, most hopeful symbols of the day; they were making the future.
On the weekends my father took us on history expeditions. Before she’d married my father, my mother had spent her entire life in sleepy Tacoma, thirty-five miles of two-lane roads to the south. So these outings excited her, and she’d pack a basket of sandwiches and apples. One time we took a ferry across Puget Sound and drove north, past dilapidated, paint-peeling houses, their front yards cluttered with the rusted ruins of cars and water-stained mattresses. This was the Port Madison Indian Reservation, where what was left of the Suquamish tribe, the people of Chief Seattle, now lived. We passed between twin totem poles and stopped along the unpaved road to look at Chief Seattle’s grave, a marble headstone topped by a white cross. The headstone read: “Seattle, chief of the Suquamish, and Allied Tribes. Died June 7, 1866. The firm friend of the whites, and for him the City of Seattle was named by its Founders.”
Inside the cramped chapel Seattle’s famous speech was written on parchment and framed: “There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory.”
We drove back through the squalor, and for a while my mother wept silently. Later she told my father that she was grateful for these outings; because of them, she no longer saw the world the way she had. Now, she said, everything was layered with what it had once been.
“And what it will be,” my father was quick to add. “Don’t forget that we’re always rolling into the future.”
“It’s just that I can’t help being sad,” she replied. “A hundred years ago those people had no idea what their lives would become.”
When my father went on business trips, my mother and I rode with him to the airport. My father would pull off to the side of the highway, and we’d watch gleaming silver jets taxi and take off and land. He mocked the DC-10 as inferior, but when a Boeing jet, especially a 727, took to the air, he would say, “Look at that! Now, that is a thing of beauty.” He once said, “Some days I can’t help but to leave work and come park right here and do nothing but sit and watch them.”
My mother had never flown, and the thought of it made her nervous. After a plane had crashed in Jamaica Bay, New York, killing all ninety-five people on board, she’d had nightmares. On a car trip my father told us a story about a man he knew, an engineer at Boeing, who was on a plane flying thirty thousand feet above the Rocky Mountains when one of the engines lost power. “This is an engineer, now; remember that,” my father said. “This is a brilliant man. He designs these planes. He knows how they work. He knows exactly what’s gone wrong and the odds of a crash under these exact circumstances.” What the engineer did, however, was avoid thinking about the plane and the engine and the odds. Instead he put his mind to recalling the lineups of every Major League Baseball team: who started at what position, in what order they batted, which pitchers were in the starting rotation. By the time the plane touched safely down, he couldn’t remember the harrowing last twenty minutes of the flight.
My father turned around in his seat and looked at me steadily, waiting for me to confirm that I had absorbed the lesson. I had. It wasn’t long after that when he began assigning me books to read. I strove to gather as much knowledge as I could.
I was nine when we left Seattle. My father’s next job was at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, the rubber capital of the world. A salesman Dad knew got him the position, and he worked on the sixth floor of the company’s headquarters. I visited him there once with my mother and was excited to find a model 727 on his desk. It occurred to me that a plane had tires, and I asked if he sold the tires that went on planes, but he said no, just car tires. “But they’re the best car tires in the world,” he added. “Firestone’s got nothing on us.” And I felt a wave of disappointment on his behalf.
One summer day my father planned a drive into Amish country. My mother made sandwiches and packed our basket, but without enthusiasm. When I asked what was wrong, she said she was less interested in Ohio history than in Washington history. I thought about this for a moment before shrugging and saying, “Me too, Mom.”
Before we could leave, dark clouds blew in, and my father turned on the radio. There was a staticky report about a violent storm — lightning, high winds, heavy rain, and hail — coming toward Akron. The broadcaster added that a tornado had been sighted one county to our west. This made my mother anxious. She began filling Mason jars with tap water.
“Janet, please,” my father said. “Let’s not overreact.”
She filled five or six jars, screwed their caps on tight, and put them in the basket with the sandwiches.
“We need to get into the basement,” she said.
“It’s a storm, Janet. It’s not the atomic bomb.”
The wind gusted, and my mother stood several feet back from the window, as if the glass might shatter and blow into the house. Lightning flashed, and a blast of thunder rattled the windows. My mother gasped and drew the curtains closed and turned to my father, who stood in thought for a moment and then went into the next room. The rain started pelting the windows and the roof. “Come on,” my mother said to me. “In the basement. Now.”
She took me by the arm, but I pulled away and said we should wait for Dad. Then came the hail.
When my father came back, he had his chess set. “Come here,” he said. He sat down at the dining-room table and took his time setting up the board. “I’ll teach you two the game of chess, and by the time you get the hang of it, this business outside will have passed.”
My mother was incredulous and offended. She said to me, “You’re coming now.” Into the basement, she meant.
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m going to learn about chess.”
“If it gets worse,” my father said, “I’ll bring him down. I promise.”
When my mother had closed the basement door behind her, my father began explaining how the pieces moved. As he talked, there came a sound like a locomotive speeding toward us, as though we were lying on the tracks as a long chain of boxcars approached. I covered my ears, and we headed to the basement.
When we left Ohio for Pennsylvania, the station wagon was piled with what my parents decided they could fit in the rooms my grandmother had freed up for us. We drove into town from the south, through the old miners’ neighborhood, which went on for blocks. For a while I expected the entire town would look like this, weatherworn and dispirited.
“How do they get around here?” my mother said. “Horse and buggy?” Over the previous couple of months she had developed a new tone of voice, edged with accusation and contempt.
My grandmother’s house was one in a row of nearly identical white two-story homes. The inside was dusty and cluttered with old furniture and collectibles. My grandmother had not so much cleared out rooms for us as straightened up. As we unloaded the station wagon and moved our boxes in, my father had to continually soothe my mother. He bent forward, put both hands on her shoulders, and tried to peer into her face, which she had covered with her hands. In the end my grandmother allowed them to pack her framed photographs and statues of the Virgin Mary into boxes. They would put everything back, my father assured her, as soon as they were able to afford a place of their own.
In each room was at least one photograph of my grandfather: posing with his arm around my grandmother; sitting on a picnic blanket; putting his fist to his chin and staring off into the future he wouldn’t live to see. One photograph was of him in uniform, standing at attention on the front steps of the house where we were now living. I thought of these photos the way I thought of our history expeditions: as a window onto something at once strange and familiar. Eleven months after Pearl Harbor, when my father was twelve, my grandfather had enlisted in the army, and one year after that he’d been killed in the waters off Butaritari Island. My grandmother spoke of him with reverence. He was a hero, a patriot, a martyr, a man who’d stepped forward when called.
I wondered what my father thought of when he sat in the room that had been his own father’s study. Sometimes, after being sent to bed, I crept partway down the back stairs and sat behind the banister to watch him drink his whiskey and read or just stare at nothing while his book lay open and forgotten on his lap. In those moments he seemed as distant as a person in a photograph.
My mother no longer came with us on our history expeditions. She wrapped our sandwiches in wax paper and announced that she was going to take the opportunity to be alone. My father drove the roads he had driven as a teenager, and we visited the places that had inspired his interest in history in the first place. We toured the site of the Battle of Wyoming, where American militiamen, duped into thinking the British were in retreat, were ambushed by Iroquois allies of the British Army. More than three hundred American soldiers died. We also visited stops along the Underground Railroad. But what most captured my imagination was a simple plaque on the banks of the Susquehanna River. It had been commissioned by the United Mine Workers union, and it read:
On January 22, 1959, twelve men died in a tragic accident at the River Slope Mine near this site. The mine had been illegally excavated beneath the Susquehanna River at the direction of the Knox Coal Company. When the force of the ice-laden river broke the thin layer of rock, over ten billion gallons of water flowed through this and other mines. This disaster ended deep mining in much of the Wyoming Valley.
“Everything,” my father said, “those hills, the roads we drive on, all of Umberland, even our house, even this spot we’re standing on now — it’s all mined out underneath.”
For the first time, the history we visited didn’t feel abstract. It felt real and present, and I pictured those men going about their work underground, in a shadow world hidden beneath ours. Wherever I went — on the long, nearly silent ride home that day, on my bike rides up and down the block, on walks to church or to the corner store — I was aware of the mines below me. I became careful about where I stepped, afraid I would anger the men I thought still worked there. And when the fire broke out and gradually spread, and that world entered ours in the form of smoke, I dreamt of men’s faces — ghosts of fathers, husbands, sons — rising out of the ground. There were spots along the sidewalks where you could feel the heat of the fire through the soles of your shoes.
I didn’t know enough then to be afraid, but I asked my father who was down there and what they wanted and if there were books about them. He told me no, that I should stick to reading about “the great men and the great battles.” Though I worried that I was being childish, I had a hard time letting it go. Yellow-gray smoke lifted out of sinkholes and drifted on the wind. It wrapped around telephone poles and the limbs of trees, pooled under eaves until updrafts carried it away. And sometimes I saw the faces in it, distraught and sad, their features twisted.
The night my father came home late for supper, I was sent to bed before he emerged from his study, but I was restless and couldn’t sleep. I got up and took a few quiet steps down the darkened hallway. I could hear my mother’s voice before I reached the stairs.
“That’s it,” she was saying. “That’s the end of it.”
“Calm down, Janet. Just calm down and get ahold of yourself.”
“At least we can say goodbye to this awful place,” she said. “But where are we going to go? Who on God’s green earth is going to hire you?”
“It’s not as bad as it seems,” my father was saying as I reached my step and squatted down to watch them under the banister. My father sat in his own father’s chair, a book open on his lap and a drink in his hand.
“How could it be any worse?” my mother said. She stood facing him, fuming. And then she lunged forward and struck my father across the face. While he sat there stunned, she reached for his glass. My father yanked it back, and the whiskey spilled across the pages of the book and down the front of him.
He stared at his wet shirt and trousers and said, “Did you absolutely have to do that?”
“I can’t even look at you,” my mother said, and she turned from him but did not walk away.
“Then don’t.” My father lifted the book from his lap and set it on the floor. He stood, brushed off his pants, and said, “I’ll see to it that you don’t have to.”
My mother did storm off then, and in a moment I heard my grandmother’s voice: “What did you do to him? What gives you the right to talk to him that way in his own house?”
My father took his handkerchief from his pocket, snapped it open, and carefully wiped the pages of the book. When he was finished, he set the open book on the table under the reading lamp to dry. He stood with his hands in his pockets for a moment, looking toward the front of the house, where my mother and grandmother continued arguing. Then he shook his head and opened the outside door at the other end of his study and went out.
I knew immediately that I would follow him, but I listened to the argument going on in the kitchen until I was sure I could leave unnoticed.
The back door led to the yard and the vegetable garden. When I stepped out, my father wasn’t there, so I went quietly around the side of the house and saw him alone on the sidewalk, heading south.
I hadn’t yet seen the town at night, except through the windows of my grandmother’s house. Under the sulfury yellow light of the streetlamps, the houses and storefronts looked sallow and dirty. The thin smell of coal smoke was in the air. I stepped lightly, carefully, not because I was barefoot but because I was aware of the men underground. I was trying not to disturb them.
When I caught up with my father, he was standing in front of an appliance store, looking at the washers and dryers. His face in profile was unlike I’d ever seen it: older, saggy, filled with shadows and doubt. Then he became aware of me, and he turned. His features recomposed themselves. He became my father again.
“I think your mother would like one of these,” he said, pointing to a washer. “You and I can rig it up and make her life a little easier.” I nodded, and he chuckled. “What are you doing out here, anyway?” he asked.
“Following you,” I said.
This amused him, and he said, “Well, come on, then,” and we walked two more blocks south to the edge of the miners’ neighborhood, then turned east.
“Do you like living here?” my father asked.
I’m sure I said something noncommittal. The question didn’t mean much to me. Wherever we lived was fine, I’d always thought.
Within a couple of weeks my mother loaded everything back in the station wagon, and she and I drove west toward Tacoma, leaving my father behind. Not long after we crossed the Continental Divide, we stopped at a diner, and my mother explained that she was not doing this to be cruel, however much our leaving surely hurt my father. It hurt her, too, she said, but it needed to be done. She was trying to save me, and herself.
None of it made any sense to me, and my mother saw this. She ran her hand through her dark curls and sighed. Then she told me that my father had been fired from his job, and he might never get another one — at least, not one that could support a family.
That’s as much as she would say to me when I was eleven. It would be years before I’d learn that he’d been fired for disappearing in the middle of the workday. Several times a week he simply walked out of his office and vanished for hours at a time. Some days he never came back at all. My mother told me he had done the same at Boeing and Goodyear as well.
When I asked him, nearly thirty years later, what he had been doing when he’d left work, he said simply, “Thinking.” We were in what had been his study. The room was long neglected. Some time earlier it had been painted white, but the walls had yellowed from age and from the coal smoke that was still rising from underground and hanging over the streets. My father’s curtains smelled of it. I tried to open the windows, but they had been painted shut. I hammered the blade of a kitchen knife into the seam, but the sash wouldn’t budge.
© Lewis Koch
I had come back to encourage my father to leave his house while he still could. County crews had battled the fire for decades. They’d drilled holes in the earth in attempts to discover the boundaries of the blaze. They’d dug deep trenches to keep it from spreading. They’d flushed the tunnels with water and fly ash. They’d even excavated burning coal. The state government had gotten involved, and then the federal. They’d done everything they could think to do, but the fire kept burning, and eventually carbon-monoxide levels climbed dangerously high, and the mine’s supporting pillars burned away, leaving the town suspended over nothing, until there was no choice but to evacuate the place entirely. Soon it would lose its zip code and disappear from maps. But my father, like a number of others, was refusing to leave.
I asked him what he had thought about when he should have been at work. He couldn’t say. He remembered only that sometimes he would help himself to a company truck. He had a handful of favorite spots to pull over to the side of the hilly roads, some with views of the river, and he would look out the window and chew over some long-lost idea or another.
“Something from a book you were reading?” I asked.
He shrugged and said, “I like to think.”
Later, after I got one of the windows open, he said, “I wasn’t really meant for that world. I wanted to be. But it turned out that I didn’t much belong in it.”
Later still he said, “I loved watching those 727s take off. I could have watched them all day.”
He opened the back door, and we went outside so he could brag about the vegetable garden, where his peas and tomatoes were coming along nicely. He said, “I’m like Noah John Rondeau, the hermit of the Adirondacks.” He put his hand on my shoulder, and his beautiful smile lit up his face. “Do you remember when we read about him?”
“Of course,” I said. “The violin-playing draft dodger.”
“He did not dodge the draft,” my father said, lowering his eyes to look into mine. “He only dodged the labor force. That was the whole point of the book: He thought he was one thing, but push came to shove, and he was something else. So he made a world for himself. A world that actually worked for him. Don’t you remember?”
My father looked up, and he waved across several abandoned yards to an old woman, who squinted for a long moment before waving back. “See,” he said. “This place is good enough to have a life in,” and he kept his hand on my shoulder.
He had held that same hand on my same shoulder as we’d made left turn after left turn in our looping walk around the neighborhood that long-ago August night, saying, “Just one more time,” passing under the streetlamps, discussing Ramses.
“How about that tomb?” my father had said. “Think your old man deserves a plot in the Valley of the Kings?”
“Of course I do,” I said.
“Those pharaohs, they were buried with honey. Enormous jars of honey. Don’t forget that when it’s time to bury me.”
“That’s because honey never goes bad,” I said, showing off a little. “You can eat it after three thousand years, and it still tastes sweet.”
A shadow passed — a cloud of coal smoke crossing between us and the streetlamp — and my father looked up, startled, as it disappeared. When he turned back to me, I could see in his face what he had been trying not to believe: His life was coming apart. There was nothing he could do to stop it.