Ruby Jane Smith is perched on a shaggy floor pillow in the middle of her sky-blue bedroom, suede-booted feet crossed, head tilted, and brows furrowed as she tries to remember the night she forgot what city she was in during a performance. It’s understandable if the past three years seem a blur. Between winning her first fiddle competition after only six lessons, taking the Mississippi State Fiddler title, and performing at the Grand Ole Opry, life’s kind of busy these days. Particularly when you’re only 11 and there’s a disco birthday party to plan and Lemony Snicket to read.
Tall reeds line the banks of the Alabama River, swaying lazily in the dark water’s eddies as the wild tenor of crickets and cicadas dips and soars through the October stillness. Fat water moccasins sun themselves on cracked red clay as long-legged egrets snatch greedily from a school of water beetles skimming the surface. A fish jumps once, then twice. A man laughs once, then again as he joins a handful of people boarding the ferry. All God’s creatures are free in Gee’s Bend.
Friday night’s game allows residents a chance to get away, but no one forgets. Approximately 236 people died in Mississippi, 95 in Harrison County. Seventeen of those people were pulled from the muddy waters of this field, where the Pirates are now battling Poplarville. Rather than being sacrilegious, it seems appropriate – football is a fiercely loved pastime here, and there’s never been a better place to be, even before Katrina made the Pirates the only show in town.
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.