There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. I tried clicking my heels while landlocked in central Pennsylvania prior to making a 25-hour bus ride from there to Myrtle Beach, but there was no magic in my Jesus sneakers. I had no choice other than enduring what promised to be a grueling ride to the sea. While I had enjoyed my fortnight in my original stomping grounds, I longed to get back to the Grand Strand, where the beach and the ocean awaited me.
I hopped a Susquehanna Trailways bus for the first leg of the journey, switching later to a Greyhound. We headed on Route 61 though the coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where the largest known deposits of anthracite coal in the Americas lay underground.
The region’s soiled towns are built on hills and along dales scarred by our efforts to extract anthracite coal. Barren mountaintops, eroded hillsides and piles of coal ash and rubble line the terrain where strip mining was and is prevalent. English, Welsh, Irish, German, Italian, Russian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian and Hungarian immigrants formed the backbone of coal region communities and many of their descendants still live in the same area. Most of the towns still have pronounced ethnic character.
My favorite among the ethnic foods found there are pierogies — dumplings of unleavened dough stuffed with potato filling, sauerkraut, ground meat or cheese and usually cooked in butter and onions. “We found every way there was to cook potatoes,” one former coal miner told me long ago.
Shamokin. Mount Carmel. Ashland. Frackville. Shenendoah. Mahanoy City. Tamaqua. Coaldale. Generations toiled there in dangerous conditions for little financial gain. Coal companies made the money. All the workers had was pride and love. They loved God, their families and the United States. They loved the homelands of their ancestors. Many lived lives of quiet desperation — don’t most of us, regardless of our bank accounts — drinking away their frustrations in bars. In Shamokin there was a bar or two on every block. I’d imagine most of the coal towns were similar in that respect.
Some, like the Molly McGuires, weren’t so quiet, resorting to violence in a struggle between organized labor and powerful industrial forces. Several of the “Mollies,” composed mainly of Irish and Irish-American coal miners, were prosecuted in the 1870s. Others, even if suspected of belonging to the secret society, were ambushed and murdered along with their families by industrialist vigilantes. Violence begets violence.
It was quite fitting that I missed the ghost town, Centralia. A mine fire has been burning beneath the borough since 1962 and most of the town’s residents were relocated in the eighties and early nineties. The state claimed all properties there when it exercised eminent domain in 1992, but some diehards still refuse to leave. Centralia’s population, once listed at 1,000, is down to ten people.
From Lehighton, our bus headed southeast and then south through megalopolis anchor cities Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Too many people in Philly and Baltimore for my tastes. Too many criminals in expensive suits in Washington. History may be these cities only salvation. Onward.
I had the privilege somewhere below Richmond of meeting a fellow vagabound who was smart, mannerly and charming.
“Where you headed? I asked him once he was settled into his seat.
I flinched. “Myrtle Beach? Where about in Myrtle Beach.”
“Coastal Carolina. I’m a technical theater major.”
Preston told me he was a sophomore and explained a few of his courses to me. I admitted to him that the only theater course I had taken was lighting design and that I used a fraternity-filed copy of a lighting diagram to complete my final class project.
Preston chuckled, then told me about his family and about his girlfriend in Chicago. She’s a student there and he loves her. They’ve been together for a few years and they enjoy the outdoors and many of the same things.
After I’d mentioned the coal region, we discussed alternative energy sources and our country’s need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. We talked about wind turbines and nuclear power and Preston told me a little bit about the developing industry of hydro fusion. The transportation of energy derived from it, he said, is one of the industry’s drawbacks because it isn’t efficient or cost affective yet to transport it by truck or pipeline.
While traveling Interstate 95 through North Carolina we noticed fields of tobacco. We first saw cotton a little farther south. It went without saying that tobacco and cotton were among the industries forming the backbone of the south — much like coal did in Pennsylvania and other mining regions in the mid-Atlantic. Neither of us mentioned the horrors of the laborers who slaved their lives away in the parched southern fields of yesteryear, either.
Preston and I sat together through every small burg the rest of the way to Myrtle Beach. It rained hard through most of North Carolina, but we didn’t waste time commiserating about the weather or about the severe cases of bus lag from which we were both suffering. Our conversations were comforting. Nevertheless, we were both happy to reach our destination, stopping just short of kissing the grimy parking lot of the Myrtle Beach depot.
So, here’s my summation of the Susquehanna Trailways/Greyhound experience. The drivers and depot employees were professional and courteous. The drivers were very helpful, announcing directions for those transferring buses at terminals and telling passengers which of them were to stay aboard. A young lady voluntarily reissued printed tickets to me when I presented my old-school paper tickets at the Richmond depot information desk. Very nice of her.
The same woman in a moment of early-morning, mixed-up confusion directed me to the wrong gate. So, I went from having my bags first in line to being among the last to board the bus. Then a bag attendant said, “This guy isn’t going to get a seat.” For a moment I thought I’d turned into the Rodney Dangerfield of straphangers. Remember the movie in which Dangerfield’s character found a restaurant open 23 1/2 hours a day? No respect, I tell ya. In retrospect I think the attendant was dogging me; he saw the frustration on my face and heard my sighing and he gave me a little scare for the fun of it.
Overall, Greyhound’s service was fine. It was my fellow passengers who bothered me. Like the big fella who sat next to me and coughed repeatedly without covering his mouth. And the younger guy who held a long, loud phone conversation with one of his homies just after daybreak. “I’ve got to get off this phone, (racial epitaph). Yeah, (racial epitaph), I’m waking up everyone on the bus.” Have you ever noticed there are always morons who insist on letting everyone else know he or she is on the phone? He was one of them. A moron who thought owning a cell phone made him important. I thanked him with as much sarcasm as I could muster, but he was neither sorry for his lack of consideration nor bothered by my dry wit. There was also a 20-something girl who insisted on bringing alcohol aboard the bus. With the Greyhound stopped beside a park in Lehighton, Pennsylvania, she got off the bus and crossed the street to a Wine & Spirits store. No doubt her younger friends occupying the back third of the bus were looking forward to getting drunk with her. The bus driver confiscated the booze as soon as she re-boarded the bus, then gave it back to her when she reached her destination.
Well played, sir. Well played.