Yesterday we found ourselves driving through the hills of south western Pennsylvania and western Maryland. A snow storm blew through overnight, shutting down the schools in the remote Youghiogheny Dam area. The hardy schools down along the Route 21 corridor, however, only gave the kids a two hour delay. We decided to have a leisurely breakfast before attempting the roads. When we got into the mountains we found wet roads coated with heavy gravel brine and the sort of snow traced woods one only sees on old fashioned Christmas cards.
The day before, the day of our arrival, had been pleasant and unseasonably warm. The country church, nestled next to a closed coal-fired power plant and a deserted logging/landfill road, stood sentinel over the winter brown river, gazing down big limestone cliffs, half hidden by resurgent underbrush and depopulation. The cemetery was filled with the people we used to know. After the service we wandered, reading the flat headstones in a haze of sorrow and discovery, greeting old friends. Their spirits whispered through the breeze, bidding welcome and long time no see as we walked among the graves.
He was a man who lived his entire life in the parish. He toiled with grace and dignity, a man of his time and place. He was a pillar of that industrial/rural congregation, the only parish he had ever known. He was baptized there, married there. A young man in the early 60’s, he was a marine and a college graduate who returned to live in and serve his community. He was raised by no-nonsense immigrants who took advantage of their opportunities. His Balkan father, after a spell in the mines, went into the cattle broker business, something he passed along to his two sons. This turned out to be a good bet. Cattle brokers are doing about the same as they always did in western Pennsylvania. The coal mines, coke ovens and steel mills are gone.
We spent the night in a resurgent shopping area, something that had not been there thirty years before. The hotels were all new, glossy Hiltons and Holiday Inns. A flashy Walmart and Super Target lined the newly widened roads, moated by huge parking lots. There were acres of ultra modern urology and dialysis clinics, doctors’ offices and rehab facilities. The usual national food chains peppered the wayward strip malls along with the venerable Eat ‘n Park, that Pittsburgh area favorite.
The day before, not knowing how long it would take to get through the awful DC traffic, we left home before sunup. Dawn rose over South Mountain as we tracked the sharp hills and steep grades and the world widened around us, long, low valleys tracing up into forested hills. Radio stations faded, only NPR and trucker country strong enough to dip into the hollows. The Washington Bubble vanished over the eastern hills and we found ourselves in the real world.
Arriving too early, we ended up getting coffee at the local Panera. It was full of old guys, all dressed in fashion discredited track suits and discount athletic shoes, drinking coffee and talking politics, regulars, their bright eyes intelligent and sharp under silver hair, accentuated by bushy, old fashioned mustaches. The help, a mix of teens just out of high school and women in their 60’s, knew them by name, greeting each with sharp grins and good words.
The church was small, attracting less than 25 parishioners on any given Sunday and perhaps a 100 people at Easter and Christmas. It was dying even when we were there, now a generation ago. We were young then, new parents, our lives ahead of us. The man who died was a surrogate uncle, a steady, soft spoken man, classy, intelligent, hardworking, modest. His fault was that he did not take care of himself and even as early as the mid-1980’s he was already taking handfuls of pills everyday, washed down by gallons of Pepsi. He did not drink, at least not much by the hard drinking standards of his family and friends. He refused to exercise. His marriage to a local woman was a lifelong love, one that produced no children. Instead they gave their lives to their families, their friends and their church. They were the class act, ready to give, to listen, to advise. No judgment or recrimination.
The area, forgotten even thirty years ago, is now on the edge of a crumbling cliff. Jobs are hard to come by. The coal trains rumble past, fewer than before. The power plant stands a rusting testament to something that once provided good livelihood to the local population. It was closed by EPA regulations, the company walking away. The landfill up the way closed. The place has returned to its country silence, relinquishing Springsteen anthems for trucker country, old country folk music and the dead language hymns of eternal rest.
This man, one of the classiest I have ever known, gave his life to this place, his place. He was a pillar of the community and the shock of his passing fades even now to hallow emptiness. Even as we stood in that sunlit cemetery, listening to the choir sing the ancient graveside service, the present became the past, gravediggers standing by, shovels in hand. He was not important or well known except in his own community of forested foothills and dying townships. In the big picture, the one that pretends Congress, the White House and Wall Street are important, he was nobody.
You shrug. Life goes on you say. Flyover country, you say. The land time forgot. Time, however, never forgets anything. It remembers all, holds all in its grimy, irrevocable hand, vise-grip fingers pressing unceasing until life is drained. Our beloved friend lies now in that country graveyard, surrounded by wild turkey, red foxes and cautious, silent deer. The church holds to its ancient ritual, outlasting landfills, power plants and coal trains. Bells ring across the cemetery and the woods beyond, solid and somehow harsh, tolling eternity.