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Monday, May 28, 2012

Time in a Bottle


The further I advance into my own Middle Ages, the more covetous I become of other people's youth. Perhaps worse, I am more frequently assailed by thoughts that begin with if only or what if?  Lately I've been asking people, "If you could go back to some previous point in your life, knowing what you know now, what would you do?" Answers vary. Some want to go back to handle their parents' investments. Others want to give former teachers a piece of their minds or smarten up about first marriages. Some say they are perfectly happy with the life they live now--I am particularly suspicious them-- and many would eat right instead of not, or learn an instrument, or take back words they wish unsaid.

So many options. According to Ambrose Bierce, a day is "a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent." Surely everyone must wonder how events might have changed. Perhaps even Mother Teresa speculated: what if I had smiled when that boy winked at me, instead of turning away? Take any memory that has stayed with you and ask, what would I change if I could? Open the forbidden door? Listen to the whispered conversation? Ignore the ravenous beast?

And yet. A lifetime of reading science fiction has taught me that we change the past at our peril. We have no idea of the tangential consequences our actions and inactions give rise to. (Just suppose I had had children instead of dogs!) One certainly doesn't want to interfere with the space-time continuum.

I am always the first to preach (and have done so here) that the best course, the only course, is living in the moment, that the past is gone and the future is a distant fiction. Easy enough to say when we're not looking in the mirror or a photo album.

Some years ago, my sister used to amuse herself by asking her twelve-year-old daughter and her friends how much they would sell a year of their youth for. She learned that for under a thousand dollars any one of the girls would have handed over her resilient energy and flexible joints. It is a very good thing -- for those girls at least-- that my sister wasn't a witch. They'd have advanced another year toward the horizon, my sister would be younger than me, and I would be waiting in line at the ATM.

Our bodies and minds betray us, giving rise to such speculation as I've been indulging. I used to think that if I didn't use my body it would stay nice for later. Not so, not so. Words escape me and my joints crackle like static. I adjust the volume in opposite ways than in the past. I still don't know how to ride a bike. And also, I am nearing a haunting convergence: this is the year I will out-live my mother. As Donald Hall writes in "The Day I Was Older":

…Now I have waked
More mornings to frost whitening the grass
Read the newspaper more times, and stood more times,
My hand on the doorknob without opening the door.
Whatever my complaints, this old road isn't really so bad or even lonely. Following in her steps, I know some of the things my mother knew but wasn't here to tell me. The company along the way is often convivial and always varied. And lovely time sloshes in a friendly bottle which we pass from mouth to mouth.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Remembering the Sunshine

In these blue days of May it feels as if the world's a friend, the universe is kind and nothing can go amiss. History teaches us otherwise. The Hindenburg exploded into our collective visual memories on May 6, 1937. The Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Forty years ago today, May 13, 1972, the last bodies from the Sunshine Mine disaster in North Idaho, were recovered and made their way back into the springtime air. The fire in the Big Sunshine affected everyone in the Silver Valley in some way or another. In my family, we saw our father cry for the first and only time. We heard our mother say, "I swear, I'll never pray again."

No one thinks about a fire in a hard rock mine. That happens with coal, not silver. And yet, there's a lot of timber in a mine, and in the Sunshine, polyurethane bulkheads that, when ignited, spewed deadly carbon monoxide fumes. Aided by the ventilation system, it filled the mine--a mile deep with over 100 miles of tunnels -- and took 91 lives. These were fathers, sons and brothers of people I knew. This was the first time the word disaster meant anything to me.

Disaster. From the Latin, astrum, star. Prefix dis- apart from. Unfavorable to one's stars. Indeed. 
 People gathered at the mine, Red Cross workers and medical providers at the ready, miners from other companies to see if they could volunteer for the rescue, friends, curiosity seekers, and of course the families who waited and waited.. No one knew that all but two were already dead below. Reading the account of the mine disaster, Gregg Olsen's finely detailed The Deep Dark: Disaster and Redemption in America's Richest Silver Mine, I finally learned what happened after the fire was discovered, and of the many heroes who stayed or went back into the mine to help others to safety.


I have a permanent link with this tragedy, not because I lost anyone, but because my father was the mine manager. My father, the mild-mannered, stamp collector, a good guy who prayed on his knees every night. He wasn't there that day, but attending the annual stockholder's meeting being held forty miles over the mountains in Coeur d'Alene. By the time anyone realized how bad it was, by the time they reached him, it was all over underground. But the days of not knowing went on for everyone. The hoists and elevators full of the dead were stranded between the deep dark and the open air for days before anyone knew that hope was a wasted emotion.

And what caused the fire? A spark from an acetylene torch? A smoker's match? Arson? Here's a story:

Late one night, after midnight, about a month after the fire, our doorbell rang. We lived out by the mine, far from town. Everyone knew the mine manager's house, in those still-feudal days it was the biggest one for miles. I heard my parents go down the stairs, and saw from my window the sudden glow as the porch light flipped on. My brother had been awakened, too, and he and I sat at the top of the stairs in the darkness listening to the low conversation. The visitor was one of the Sunshine widows. She'd been drinking and said she had something she needed to tell.

She said her husband and another miner had decided to make a device to start a small fire underground. They'd experimented for weeks in the basement, and were ready to go on May 2 as they had planned. Just a little embarrassing smoke for the stockholder's meeting. She said survivors told her that her husband had escaped, but when he saw that his actions had gone way too far, he went back down to try to help, and didn't come back.

 The next day my father called the district attorney, told him the story, and then he let it go. It was his nature. But that night has haunted me ever since. It's with me now as I write. The investigation into the fire at the Sunshine determined the cause to be spontaneous combustion, an unsatisfying verdict implying that no one was responsible. It just happened. So it goes. The report devotes one line to the arson theory: There has been no substantial evidence provided that leads us to believe the fire was deliberately started.

The woman was vilified: a drunk and possibly a schizophrenic. Unreliable. That happens to a lot of whistle blowers, especially women. If I'd been through that, I'd be a drunk schizophrenic, too. But I can still recall the woman's voice, nervous, but full of conviction. It would have taken a lot of a courage in those days, regardless of blood alcohol level, for a woman to walk up to our big house and ring the bell. And I know that whenever I think back to that time, I will always be the girl sitting in the dark at the top of the stairs. Listening in the night to a chilling story that unraveled a mystery, and was then ignored.