SECTION ANEWS and OPINION
Coal-Mine Fires Continue to Smolder
People keep dying, so my phone never stops ringing. I've made notes in the computer for fourteen obituaries tonight, and I haven't written up a single one. Most I've ever done in a shift is fifteen, and it's only 9:23, so there's plenty more to come."Scranton Observer. . . . Yeah, we got time. . . . He was a high school valedictorian, and then he worked in the mines? . . . Which Legion post? . . . In Jessup? . . . Mercy Hospital; family by his side. Okay. Talk to you later."I've been doing this job for five months now, and this is the busiest night I've ever had. Officially, I'm an editorial assistant, which used to be called a copy boy and generally means gofer.I'm a backup phone-answerer for the news department, but mostly I talk to the funeral directors and get information for the next day's obituaries--the dead person's name, age, where they were born, where they lived, surviving relatives, employment history, etc. Also the stuff that makes these things interesting--their hobbies, organizations they belonged to, their World War II-era nicknames (already today I've had Babe, Pops, Hammer, and Dingle). Then I write it up into readable paragraphs for the morning paper, doing it as fast as I can."Scranton Observer. . . . c-z-y-k? . . . Okay, so 'after a dignified and courageous struggle.' . . . Life member of VFW Post 4921. Where's that again? . . . Lone Pine Hunting Club. . . . Where'd he work? . . . Yeah, call me back with the survivors. No problem."I'm on a first-name basis with all of the local funeral directors, who call us in the evenings to get their latest clients featured in the paper. I work Friday, Saturday, and Monday nights, which sucks when you're a high school senior--I miss all the parties--but it's undeniably good experience for what I want to do with my life. These were the only shifts available."Scranton Observer. . . . Yes, Mr. Powell, this is Mike. . . . I haven't written it yet, but I've got my notes right here. . . . Scranton Eagles Memorial Classic at South Side Lanes, 1946. You say he rolled a 282, not 280. . . . Fixed it. Anything else? . . . I've got his brothers Fred in Minooka and Johnny in Dunmore, and a sister Kitty in Green Ridge. And predeceased by a brother Buddy in 1997. . . .""Yeah, of course we can mention the dogs. . . . Lucy and E-t-h-e-l. They both Labs? . . . Sweet. They gotta be missing him. They let dogs go to funerals, don't they? . . . Oh yeah, I'm running like eight miles a day. I jump on a treadmill at the Y when it's icy, but it's been dry lately. We start working out for real on Wednesday. Can't wait. . . . Thanks. Come see a race if you get a chance."There are a lot of very old people around this city. Well, obviously there are fewer all the time. But you learn a lot about their lives taking down the information for their final appearance in the newspaper.You can get a real history lesson reading the obit section every day--all the factories and mills that shut down way before I was born; the huge number of different churches and organizations people belong to (just in the last ten minutes, for example: the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Polish Women's Alliance, the Red Hat Society, the Olyphant Billiards Association).Good people--lots of war veterans, lots of faithful parishioners, lots of beloved grandparents. They die at home or in the hospital or a senior center, of old age or cancer or who knows what. The worst cases are when a kid dies in a car accident. Nobody I know yet, but I had to write one a few months ago when two guys from that football team went over the railing on Route 81 in a pickup truck.You read the obits and you learn about the city's history. But they also get you worrying about its future."Scranton Observer. . . . Don't call me here, Joey. . . . Because I'm working. . . . What kind of emergency? . . . Look in your backpack. I gotta go. . . . Because the phones ring constantly. People die around here every fifteen seconds. . . . Old people mostly. . . . I gotta go, man. . . . The other phone is ringing. Get lost.""Scranton Observer. . . . That's me. . . . Sure. One second. . . . Okay--spell that last name. . . . Lifelong resident? . . . So we'll say that he lived briefly in Carbondale before returning to Scranton in 1953. . . . Know when he retired? . . . Okay. Can you hold on a second?""Scranton Observer. . . . Hi, Mr. Rasmussen. . . . No problem. Can I call you right back? . . . Okay.""Thanks for holding. I think I knew this guy. Did he umpire Little League games in East Scranton? . . . Right. Right, the gold teeth. Great guy. . . . You can call me back with that. . . . The Friday night deadline is eleven, but we got time. . . . You know where he served? . . . So you're going to want the American flag symbol with this one? . . . You bringing in a photo? . . . No problem. Call me back. We got plenty of time."It's no wonder the city's population drops with every census. We're still burying former coal miners and textile workers--remnants of long-gone industries. One night last week--both within twenty minutes--I wrote obits for two ladies that were over a hundred years old. Both had lived their entire lives in Scranton.Who replaces them? Probably not me.I'm out of here in a few months, off to college and then who knows where? If this city had more to offer, I'd probably come back, but as things stand, I can't see it.Scranton started dying years ago--fading into urban blight. Not collapsing, just losing its gleam. Most of the textile factories closed way back, and although coal-mine fires still smolder under parts of the city, none of the wealth and employment of that industry remain either. I sometimes picture myself at age thirty, unemployed, sitting on the porch of my parents' house in the evening, drinking a can of beer. It isn't a difficult leap to make--a third of the houses in our neighborhood have someone like that hanging around.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from One Good Punch by Rich Wallace. Copyright © 2007 by Rich Wallace. Excerpted by permission of Knopf Books for Young Readers, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.