My parents grew up in the coal-mining city of West Hazleton, Pennsylvania. Both of my grandfathers were first-generation American coal miners, and both died of coal-mining related diseases. One lived in Old Cranberry, while the other lived right up the road on the corner of S. Broad St. and the new-fangled road (“Can do Expressway!”) that brought cars from the then-new interstate into town.
When we visited, I have many fond memories of sitting on that front porch doing what people did back then — watching the cars go by and talking (although, when you’re a kid, it’s mostly the adults doing the talking).
If you looked across the road, all you could see were the shale banks of the long since-abandoned coal mines.
A waft of pipe smoke drifted up from my grandpap’s (pictured above) pipe.
And like most kids, I wanted to be anywhere but there.
This was the 1970s, so of course there was no Internet and no cable television. My grandparents’ TVs received all of 3, maybe 4 broadcast channels. The telephone was still considered something of a novelty in these houses, with both of them having only one centrally-located phone (usually in a hallway between two rooms).
The 3+ hour car drive to visit didn’t help matters, especially when we were younger — the five of us would pile into our old brown Ford Maverick. Not a car you wanted to spend 3 minutes in, much less 3 hours.
But despite these “hardships,” I really have nothing but fond memories of these visits looking back at them now some 30+ years later.
I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, of course, but those long days taught us the value of figuring things out on your own. You didn’t have to rely on others — the Internet, TV, whatever — to entertain you or keep you busy. You relied only on yourself and your own sense of adventure.
Many of those childhood adventures with my two older brothers involved exploring those old shale banks. It was not something I think our parents looked forward to, the inevitable, dreaded1 question asked nearly as soon as we arrived, “Can we go over to the coal banks?”
“Yes, but be home in time for dinner.”
And off we went. We tried to make it home for dinner, and most times we did, but sometimes we got lost in whatever storyline we created, whatever exploring we took on.
The coal banks represented an almost-alien land of endless gray and black. We sometimes tried exploring how far they went, but inevitably never really found the “end” of them.
The huge shale banks were the byproduct of coal mining there. It’s the useless rock that doesn’t burn. It’s sharp and loose on the banks, and it was easy to lose your footing going up or down the sometimes-steep inclines. You could find plenty of actual coal in those banks, too, but it’s really hard to start a fire with just coal (as we learned from first-hand experience). They were largely devoid of vegetation at that time, since there was nothing there for the plants to take root of.
Other times we’d hang out on the train tracks that ran behind my uncle’s house, including the little overpass bridge down by Old Cranberry. We’d tentatively walk onto the bridge, always afraid an oncoming train was always just around the bend.
Sometimes, it was. And then we’d run off the bridge in a ridiculous game of backwards chicken — can you outrun a train in time to make it off the bridge? These are the games children have been playing in America for decades.
Despite all of this unsupervised play on potentially-dangerous coal banks, active railroad tracks, and a myriad of other completely unfit-for-childhood consumption activities, we made it through those long days largely unscathed. An occasional scrape up, but nothing serious. My oldest brother suffered more serious injuries riding his skateboard than we ever suffered while playing on our own, far from adult eyes and ears.
We know now that the 1970s was not an era notable for its concern for the safety of children. Toys were still dangerous back then (I remember distinctly the sharp edges of one of my favorite toys, a metal gas station and garage that cut me more than once), and adults were largely unconcerned about the possible dangers (“Aww, they’ll be fine.”).
And you know what? It all turned out alright. Our imaginations took us where we needed to be then and there, and we were put in charge and fully responsible for our own fun and entertainment.
We’re all grown up now, and I haven’t been back to West Hazleton for over 20 years. We still have family there, but I imagine it wouldn’t be quite the same. Looking at a Bing map of the area, I see the coal banks are covered now in vegetation and greenery. The old train bridge down by Old Cranberry is still there, and so are both of my grandparents’ homes, filled not with familiar, friendly faces any longer (“Eat, eat more! You’re so thin!!”), but strangers.
As you age — I turn 44 tomorrow — memories of other, perhaps simpler times, drift back into your head from time to time. I’m not sure it’s nostalgia — I don’t want to relive those moments and it’s not really a yearning. It’s just a memory, encased in the sepia tones of my photos.
I can still smell my grandfather’s pipe smoke when I close my eyes and think back to those times on his front porch. Perhaps one day I’ll try taking up the pipe, too.
- Dreaded only because we often would arrive home quite blackened by our play on the coal banks. [↩]