Rocky kames, freewheeling trouble, Plato, rasping crickets, poor boy’s rocketry, dad beers, cowboy whoops, accelerant diversions & the High Shaft.
W e were sleeping out on the abandoned strip mine at the top of the ridge, the flattest place around. Ponderous left-behinds of the mining days littered its edges: old earth-mover tires so large, boys could stand upright inside them; amputated sections of Caterpillar tracks; long, winding kames of rocky subsoil so barren, even weeds wouldn’t grow on them; rusted-out fifty-gallon fuel drums. We’d lay our sleeping bags on the ground, build a fire, heat cans of pork and beans in the embers and sip from the beers we’d stolen from our fathers’ basements and garages—Rolling Rock, Iron City, Duquesne—all from our region around Pittsburgh. And then, near midnight, smoked and fragrant as hams, a little drunk, we’d wander away in packs from our fires and look for trouble.
One way up to the Strips was the steepest paved road in Steubenville, Woodland Ave. (Pico Street, out to the west of downtown, is just as steep, but shorter.) From Woodland’s top you could see, startlingly close, the Ohio Valley Hospital, two miles and at least fifteen minutes distant by car. It was actually just a crow-fly couple of hundred yards away, cut off from Lincoln Heights by the long, deep, anciently timbered hollow that ran between it and our neighborhood that had been set aside by the town as Beatty Park. Realizing one leafless winter’s day how close the hospital actually was to us complicated my sense of living in an Appalachian landscape. “Nearby” in our town of ups and downs and over-the-hills wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
The creek along Lincoln and Sinclair avenues, far below, ran lifelessly toward the Ohio, its waters bright orange with mine runoff. Kids I went to high school with lived and breathed on its stinking banks
When heavy snow came in the winter, you could ride your sled from the top of Woodland all the way down Lincoln Boulevard, where I lived, and on down to the foot of our steep switchbacked hill, where it joined Lincoln Avenue, a distance of nearly a mile. One round trip took half a snow-stomping day.
“Down” described most movement from the Strips. In all directions, the fall was steep. Seemingly an eon later, I first viewed my neighborhood from the eagle’s height of Google Earth, and it confirmed that, everywhere around, down was the only way to go.
That sleep-out evening, the trouble we worked up began with a burnt-out oil drum near the top of the newly paved Woodland Ave. For some reason, the drum’s bottom, now completely rusted, had been filled a foot thick with cement. It took no time to peel the rotten metal away. Long, straight, steep hill? Hard, round wheel of cement? Yes.
Two guys got the trouble up on its edge (it resembled in shape, if not color, a huge wheel of Colby cheese) and held it there. Meanwhile, I ran down to the bottom, where a streetlight cast a small yellow splash on the intersection of Woodland and Alton Avenue. When the launched cement wheel appeared in the light, I was to dart out and kick it over, thus keeping it from jumping the curb and doing damage to any of the houses that lined both sides of the street.
Near midnight, smoked and fragrant as hams, a little drunk, we’d wander away in packs from our fires and look for trouble.
This is the kind of fun a kid in Kansas could never enjoy. The ups and downs of Appalachia provide many sorts of similarly accelerant diversions: scooting otter-like on your stomach down a muddy slope; sending a junker car plunging into a hollow; bombarding the roof of some old shack way over the hill with rocks and walnuts and rain-filled beer bottles; or, in a more clearly criminal veer, dumping a hundred drag-line buckets of overburden into the creek far below. Long before we learned in high school physics the fundamental law that falling objects accelerate at the rate of 33 feet per second per second, we thought this cheese wheel would provide a very cool adventure. Of course, the cement would not be free-falling; I would guess that Woodland Avenue’s slope was nearly 45 degrees, and the length from the top of the hill, where the concrete was let go, to the bottom, where I stood to kick it over, was—again, I would have to guess—75 or 100 yards. There would be a lot of friction, but even a rough calculation would put the velocity of the concrete at something far above my ability to judge its constantly accelerating rumble out of utter darkness into the small cone of streetlight where I waited below. But this caper took place before all consideration of physics and with little more than a larval sense of cause and effect. We were boys, immortal and stupid, running wild after midnight.
“Ready!” I shouted up the hill. At first, I heard little: the crickets rasped in the weeds along the street, the streetlight above me hummed, the nearly sub-aural fulminations of the mills over the hill stirred the air. Then, a heavy, rocky bumping, punctuated by split-seconds of silence. (The cheese was beginning to bounce a bit as it picked up speed.) I squinted up the street, but still could see nothing. I crouched like a linebacker ready to blitz. The rolling sound grew louder, I thought I could feel the street vibrate, and then something flashed by so quickly I did not, could not, react as it shot out of the yellow pool of streetlight and continued on down blacked-out Woodland Ave. Finally, a sudden whomp that made me and the air jump at once.
From the top of the hill, I could hear the others shrieking out cowboy whoops. I wanted to yell “Shut up!” but I was afraid already that the crashing of the concrete had stirred the neighbors. Soon enough, farther down Woodland, lights went on in two or three houses in a row on the left side of the street. I heard voices, incredulous shouts, a Goddamn! or two, then I saw a man in a bathrobe jogging quickly toward where I stood.
I dashed away into a side yard and down into the woods. The slick damp ground, covered with leaves and ferns, made my feet go out from under me and I began a slow, twisting slide over the hill, my butt soaked, my hands grabbing at roots and stalks and branches. I flailed, stifled a scream. At last I stopped, twenty or thirty feet below, heels dug in, hands gripping whatever they could. Up above, I could hear more voices now, front-door screens squeaking open, footsteps descending from porches.
The cost of grave environmental damage in and near my neighborhood has, to my knowledge, never been calculated. I would like to be able to report the tonnage of coal removed from the Strips, but I cannot. From Jefferson County alone, of which Steubenville is the county seat and the site of the first coal mine in Ohio, the amount of bituminous produced by 2010 was 1,744,000 short tons. In 1959, around the time of the cheese-wheel misadventure, a map was made that shows the old strip mine at the top of Lincoln Heights. Some of those millions of tons came from there, a ten-minute walk from my front yard. As a result, the creek along Lincoln and Sinclair avenues, far below, ran lifelessly toward the Ohio, its waters bright orange with mine runoff. Kids I went to high school with lived and breathed on its stinking banks. The gravity of the environmental situation was not widely acknowledged until the Six Cities Study came to town a few years after our night adventure on the Strips, announcing that not only was there trouble with the waters, but that we also had the most-toxic air in the country.
Early the next morning, having found my way back up the wooded hillside overnight, I descended from the Strips with my damp sleeping bag slung over my shoulder and sneaked past the house at the bottom of Woodland. It was a brown two-story, a big brick porch fronting it. Two solid columns held the porch up at either end—or at least until the night before they had. Now the one closest to the foot of Woodland Ave. was crushed and broken, the dense wheel of concrete we’d launched lying among broken bricks in an ugly gouge of mud and lawn at its base. I had no idea who lived there, but in the weird, relatively unexplored recesses of my conscience, I think I felt something that, later, I might have identified as guilt.W
hatever my misgivings, they were not enough to forestall another escapade in that place of precipitous landscapes. It might have been during one of our expeditions to Walker’s Pond, the sole body of still water we knew of in that town of runs, seeps, springs and creeks, waters all pulled by gravity down to the big river. It was a long walk, and we’d be gone for the entire day. Our mothers were used to such long forays, probably because the isolation of Lincoln Heights, and the Strips just above, made it unlikely we’d end up downtown, where the kind of trouble mothers worried about sometimes lurked: slick-haired greasers with metal chains for belts; numbers runners; ne’er-do-wells of every complexion and ilk, some of them armed. So, being out all day on the Strips, or as far away as Walker’s Pond, was acceptable after our boyhoods of many previous safe returns. Our mothers packed us up pocket-size lunches; mine was often half a stick of pepperoni and maybe a hunk of bread. The pepperoni would get wet in the pond and still be edible, so I always stashed the bag of bread on the bank somewhere to stay dry.
This day, we came upon one of those big Euc truck tires. “Euc” is short for Euclid Road Machinery Company, the manufacturer of colossal earth-moving equipment. Ultimately, their ever-reengineered and enlarging dump trucks, common on strip mines, could carry up to 110 tons of earth or coal. Their tires were necessarily gigantic, and it was one of those we lifted up and emptied of its dirt and shallowly rooted weeds. Two or three of us pushed it over to the edge of another steep hillside leading down to Lincoln Avenue, three hundred wooded feet below.
Plato complained that “a boy is, of all wild beasts, the most difficult to manage.” It is no different in Appalachia than it must have been in ancient Attica. The Appalachian landscape provides not only opportunity for such civilized pursuits as botanizing or insect collecting or birding (or distilling whiskey, or digging ginseng), but also for many such concerns as involve altitude and gravity in one way or another. Remember the Rocket Boys, Homer Hickam’s gang of Appalachian lads who, on a similarly flat strip-mined spot in southern West Virginia, and at about the same time our Steubenville adventures were unfolding, started flying homemade rockets, with ultimate great success. In our own way, we engaged in a kind of poor-boy’s rocketry. At the time, a popular laundry detergent packed as a bonus in each of their extra-large boxes a free metal tumbler. These were for drinking from, of course, and they were maybe eight inches tall, and about two or three inches in diameter. Made of some sort of extrudable metal—aluminum?—they gleamed in various brilliant colors: ruby, emerald, bronze, silver. Because they had no seams, they wouldn’t leak. But, more importantly, we discovered, they would not explode if plunked down over a lit M-80 or silver salute or cherry bomb. In fact, they would fly just about as well as the earliest fabrications of the Rocket Boys, though not as far. I would estimate that a particularly felicitous placement of an M-80 beneath a tumbler well-set in the dust could result in an ascent of a hundred feet or more. Often, the tumbler would be somewhat bent out of shape, and thus have to be retired from flight upon recovery. But sometimes you could get two, maybe three launches from one. Up it would go, then, after a satisfying five or ten seconds, down it would, well, tumble—still hot, whistling a bit. We’d let it cool, then assess whether it was fit for another launch.
But flying the tumblers was literally lightweight messing around. The Euc tire—now that was serious, and it could do some damage. We didn’t think much, if at all, about that; the delight of setting it rolling down, smashing its way, its scarred and spattered ending in the creek far below—that could not be resisted. And it would be a good story to tell and re-tell afterwards: “Remember the time we rolled that big sucker over the hill?”
This caper took place before all consideration of physics and with little more than a larval sense of cause-and-effect. We were boys, immortal and stupid, running wild after midnight.
It went as we expected: a few heaves and hos by us and it began to roll, crashing through the first line of woods, careening, jumping even higher than the cheese wheel had, then disappearing far below in a blizzard of leaves and flying twigs. We all froze then, listening for the final crash, but nothing.
What, had it just stopped somewhere, somehow? Had it tipped over and lost all its momentum, stiffly lodged against some thick tree stump halfway down? Dissatisfaction settled over us. No sense of triumph arose. Anticlimax. Deflation. Then a kind of low-grade worry. What the hell?
The last deep mine inside Steubenville’s city limits closed in 1961, just a year or so after the gravity adventures. Only a few blocks from the heart of the business district, it had been called the High Shaft. I imagine that my grandparents burned coal from it to heat their house (and me) at 118 Logan Street. High Shaft’s galleries eventually snaked in all directions under the town, some of them stretching to the foot of Lincoln Heights. During my boyhood, then, beneath the whole South End, abandoned tunnels filled slowly with blackdamp. On school nights, as I sat in the reading room of the Carnegie Library, on the corner of Slack Street and South Fourth, just across from Antonucci’s Grocery, poisonous fumes filled lightless empty spaces a hundred feet or so beneath me. The portrait of Andrew Carnegie, who had begun his rise to robber-baron status in a telegraph office in Steubenville, glared down as I studied my Latin grammar.
And from here on, I have no choice: I must imagine the end of the story. I must give up control of the narrative, and come to terms with the worn fact that sometimes life doesn’t work like a well-made story. It doesn’t conclude. It just dies off, not with a bang, as the man said, but with a whimper. (Or, unsettlingly zombie-like, it refuses to perish.) For weeks, I sneaked looks at the Herald-Star, dreading to see a headline like, “Huge Tire Strikes House, Man Killed.”
Surely, I thought at night in my tiny bedroom, my little brother sleeping calmly in the bunk below, surely that tire had to have hit something. In my sweaty tossing and turning, I imagined an old millworker in dusty overalls, sitting at an unpainted kitchen table in one of those tiny houses clinging to the steep hillside far below. Suddenly he looks up, soup spilling from his spoon, and the world explodes around him.
The Appalachian landscape provides not only opportunity for such civilized pursuits as botanizing or insect collecting or birding (or distilling whiskey, or digging ginseng), but also for many such concerns as involve altitude and gravity in one way or another.
But nothing, week after week. I hoped that, over time, the growing unease would leak away from me, eventually running dry like some buried spring in the steep woods into which we’d launched the tire. I hoped that I might drive one day with my dad along Lincoln Ave. and see it, lying harmlessly in the creek, no sign of its narrow desolation of the hillside it had raced down through. Ah, I would inwardly sigh, relieved. Ah, the end.
Nothing. That was the worst part. The end of the story was missing. It would remain unfinished, its potentially ruinous effects suspended, still waiting to happen, a nightmare stalled but not overcome. It became a grave overburden hanging above the assorted ups and downs of my life, a heaviness—a morbid hunch. Just the smallest random nudge, the tiniest perturbation, could set off a flood of disaster, like the down-bursting of some vast, smothering lake of sludge onto a town far below.
Richard Hague, a native of Steubenville, Ohio, in the Appalachian Ohio River Valley, taught in Cincinnati for 45 years. While there, he engaged in other enterprises and adventures, including commercial urban gardening, hermetic rustications in Appalachia, communal gatherings of writers and teaching for a few summers at the Institute for Professional Development and Graduate School of Education at Northeastern University in Boston. His high school career ended when he refused to sign an anti-gay and anti-worker’s rights Archdiocese of Cincinnati contract in May 2014. He continues as artist-in-residence at Thomas More University in Crestview Hills, Kentucky. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Spring 2019 Travel Writing Contest and was first published in Vol. 21 of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, “Appalachia Acting Up,” 2019.
Lead image: Willie Fineberg