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Joseph E Bird

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When Clara met Harry.

My old school.  No, not my class.  I’m old, but not that old.

I spent half of my first grade year at the old Central School, which was an elementary school by then. In the photo above, it was the high school in my little town of St. Albans, West Virginia.

Freshmen Nuts, the banner says. Kids being kids, trying to be outrageous for their class photo. Front and center is Sarah Wilson, dressed like a baby with her baby bottle.  The others I can’t really figure out. Behind Sarah is someone in what used to be called a “dunce” hat, which was sometimes used to humiliate misbehaving students. Oh, the psychological carnage inflicted in those days.  To left of the dunce, a student is very proud of whatever he (she?) is holding. Wish I could see it. I’ll bet it’s good.

Then there’s the fiddle player. Kind of looks like a girl to me. She’s holding the fiddle comfortably, knowingly, as if it’s more than just a prop. Like she’d be tearing into Turkey in the Straw at the square dance on Saturday night with her guitar playing father and banjo picking brother.  Her friends would think she’s odd and make fun of her.  Then, in her senior year, a new family from Huntington would move to town to help build the railroad. The oldest son, Harry, is Clara’s age. (Yes, her name is Clara. How do I know that? I’m a writer. I think Clara suits her.) The other kids don’t want much to do with Harry because he’s new and he comes from money. And then there’s Harry’s good looks. He’s just intimidating. Except Clara doesn’t care. He’s the new outsider. She’s been an outsider as long as she can remember.

There’s something about Clara. You can see it in the photo. Harry sees it. She’s no-nonsense. Straightforward. Not afraid to speak her mind.

“You play the violin very well,” he says.

“It’s a fiddle.”

“Yes, of course. I took piano lessons when I was young. Learned a little Brahms. Some Liszt.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you ever play any classical music?”

“I’m a fiddle player. I don’t care much about those guys.”

“Uh-huh.”

On the platform behind her, her father plays the first three chords of the next song.

“Got to go.”

She turns to take her place, fiddle under her chin.  She looks back.

“Can you dance?”

Before he can answer, she’s ripping off the intro to the next song, smiling at Harry.

.

Then again, it’s entirely possible that the person in the photo is a guy. But that’s another story.

 

They once lived here.

mountains

It’s morning, one hundred years ago.

The men are in the mine. Or working the tipple. Or loading the rail cars.

The women are at home with the children. Or teaching school. Or at the company store.

Deep in the New River gorge, coal mining began in 1873 in the remote town that bears the name of its founder, John Nuttall. For more than 80 years, families lived, worked, and died in Nuttallburg. By 1958, it was all over.

All that remains are the ruins. You can still go there, but the trip itself is a harrowing descent down the steep hills that will burn the brakes of your car. And once there, the isolation is eerie. You can see the coal tipple and almost hear its noisy operation echoing through the valley. There’s nothing of the company store other than its foundation. Likewise with the houses that once grew from the hillside. Try to imagine the mothers and kids playing on the dusty paths as they scraped together a life that was as hard as the sandstone their husbands used to build the town. There was probably a doctor to tend to the illness and injuries, and a preacher to tend to those who didn’t recover.

Listen. Hear their voices. They once lived here.

tipple.jpg
From the tipple, the conveyor disappears into the forest, where the men of Nuttallburg loaded coal that would help power the country.
tracks.jpg
The natural process will not be stopped.

 

company store.jpg
All that’s left of the company store.
morning
And the sun still rises where children once played.

Over at True North Nomad, Lily Burgess writes about her adventures through wild and wonderful Canada. The other day she published a story about a ghost town in Ontario which reminded me of my visits to Nuttallburg.  Check out her work.

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