Gone are the sticky, sultry-slick days of white-hot heat. Even the martins can feel it as they wait in the gathering dusk, cock their heads toward the wind and listen for the call. A cool breeze sends them spinning on their perch and they struggle a moment then give way to flight — glorious flight — black dots in the star-heavy sky.
I’ve never been one to turn down a hot story, and Centralia is smoking – literally. A Pennsylvania coal mining town that’s been on fire 44 years; 11 stubborn old-timers who refuse to leave; fiery sidewalks that melt the soles off your shoes. How could I resist? An abandoned strip mine caught fire in 1962, igniting an underground coal seam that has burned under Centralia ever since. Experts say it could burn another 250 years. I imagined an eerie, smoke-laden atmosphere, sun streaming across a barren landscape, miles of scorched Earth. Why would people live in such a Godforsaken place?
From her perch high atop the factory floor, she pulls red and white stripes through her hands over and over, being careful to keep the seams neat and tidy. Always a perfectionist, she is even more prudent here. This isn’t just any flag – it’s Old Glory. And this isn’t just any version – it’s an interment flag to drape a veteran’s coffin, one last embrace from a grateful country.
Silently, the veterans of the USS Oriskany, a Korean War-era aircraft carrier, huddled together, collars turned up against the wind, hats drawn low to hide tears as they stood on the decks of some 400 charter and pleasure boats dotting the Gulf of Mexico in a loose semicircle Wednesday morning. This was her moment, her final battle, and they were determined to do it right. Thirty-seven minutes later, she was gone, a puff of grey in an azure sky – scuttled 24 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., in a 212-foot deep watery grave, where it will serve another function for a nation, as an artificial reef.
Contrails of sweat arc through the air as a football player slams his opponent into the wall, the momentum carrying him over the four-foot barrier and nearly into the nacho-laden laps of a family of four. Fans leap to their feet and pump their fists to a chorus of “Who let the dogs out? Woof! Woof!” With a triumphant grin, the airborne player vaults over the wall and plants his feet firmly back on the green Astroturf as a parade of silver-clad women shimmies into the end zone. Football is the main event on this Friday night, though religion is a definite subtext – with a Bible giveaway, a Christian concert, and, controversially, football players wearing jerseys with biblical references.
The smell of fried catfish wafts across the wide front porch, up to the beadboard ceiling and then down, past the white clapboard walls and out beyond the cracked sidewalk to 30th Street. At the edge of the porch sits a gaggle of girls, swinging their feet in rhythm with the steady buzz — 15-year-old Ken Davis is getting a haircut, and on a Sunday afternoon with nothing better to do, this is the height of entertainment.
Today, empty warehouses dot the landscape beside the trestle, a testimony to the city’s early years as a booming purveyor of cotton. Softly, the winter sun steals across clumps of goldenrod, outlines the trestle’s wood and steel frame and hints at another existence.
If you weren’t looking for Panola, you’d never find it. It’s like a thousand other small towns across the South – an accidental detour on the way to somewhere else. Seventeen miles from a Snickers bar or a Coca-Cola, Panola is beyond rural – it’s practically forgotten. Things might still be that way if it hadn’t been for the church fires – 10 in eight days last month across five different Alabama counties. Three Birmingham college students were arrested in connection with nine of the fires last Wednesday, but healing will take a long time in Panola, where Galilee Baptist Church was one of the last to burn, completely destroyed on Feb. 7.
Fog rises from the Black Warrior River, obscuring all sense of place and time. Familiar landmarks are cloaked in Mother Nature’s wet embrace, familiar sounds shrouded in eerie stillness — exquisitely painful to the ears, stunningly tranquil to the soul.