Centralia

For two summers, when I was 18 and 19, I worked for the steel company that employed my father. I did random sales and marketing stuff for them: customer satisfaction surveys and inventories with the various state and local transportation departments that used their products. Driving around — Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, and California — by myself in a rental car with an expense account was pretty happening for a skinny college kid who wanted to spend as much money as he could on guitar gear.

One day I was riding around with some guys in central Pennsylvania when we came to a town called Centralia. It stank. Smelled like sulfur. When I asked, they just shook their heads and said, “wait.” When we got closer to the town, they told me to get out and put my hand on the pavement. Even though it was a cool day, the pavement was warm; really warm.

Sulfur; heat.

Was this hell?

They finally told me what was going on. You see, Centralia is in coal mining country, and one day a fire started burning in the mine at Centralia…

… that was in 1962, and it’s been burning ever since.

Once the fire got started, there was seemingly nothing anyone could do. All attempts to extinguish it had failed, and it essentially was smoldering for over 30 years.

You can smell the sulfur, and you can feel the heat. The slowly became toxic, houses slowly being evacuated before it got too risky, health-wise, to remain.

Eventually the fire killed the town, and Centralia doesn’t really exist anymore.

Sometimes I wonder about the stuff we carry around in our spirits, in our hearts. Are there things that gnaw at you? Things that you’ve done or seen? Things that were done to you? When there is significant pain in our lives it is tempting to “get on with it”, and try to shut things away, but when we do that we often find that those things are like the mine fire at Centralia: even though we see no destruction on the surface, deep down we are being destroyed, and eventually what’s going on underneath will be displayed on the surface of our lives.

When there is pain, we need to do our best to bring things into redemptive time — to allow them to see the light of day, to exist in the oxygen, so that we can deal with them.

Burying them won’t kill them. It only gives them places to smolder and burn.

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