Friday, January 23, 2009

Sunday Scribblings - Phantoms & Shadows - 1/25/09

I have been blogging for nearly two years. Writing here, usually in response to prompts supplied by various blog sites, has brought to light memories from the shadows of the disturbed recesses of my mind. I try to recount and record these stories before they once again become phantoms and slip back into the darkness. This week’s Sunday Scribbling instructions brought back memories of elementary school.

For nearly all of my 6 years of primary education, I attended Silver King School. It was located in a small gulch just east of Smelterville, Idaho. A creek flowed along beside the school and adjacent to the playground area. Sounds like an idyllic setting. However any image you have conjured of a trout filled, crystal clear, mountain stream flowing down the valley is premature. Upstream from the schoolhouse was plant that refined zinc. All of the waste created by that refinery was washed downstream to us. Zinc is a heavy metal, and though our bodies require a minimal amount of zinc for maximum performance, we do not require, nor can we tolerate the amounts that oozed from that creek. When I think of this water, lyrics from an old Chris Rhea song come immediately to mind:

“I'm standing by a river but the water doesn't flow
It boils with every poison you can think of.”

The water was a color that I am certain God never intended H2O to be. It was a grayish/green opalescent liquid. We did not routinely wade into the toxic waste, but from time to time one of our playground kickballs would sail over the chain-link fence and one of us would fetch it. There was one kid that had some kind of seizures and every so often we would find him walking down the stream. Someone would go retrieve him too. This creek feeds the Coeurd'Alene River which, in turn, issues into scenic Lake Coeure'Alene, where we swam, fished, and water skied.

Had that been the only environmental issue we faced, this writing would not have the impact on the reader that I had hoped for. The school was also in the shadow of huge smokestacks (first one, then a second was built) which belched the exhaust from the huge lead and silver refinery that was on a hillside just a few hundred yards east of the school.

We were so accustomed to the “smelter smoke” that we hardly even noticed except on the days it was particularly pungent. This was long before there was an EPA. The focus of the government in those days was mutually assured destruction of the Russians and not air quality. The air we breathed on a daily basis was more toxic than any Los Angeles has ever experienced. If there were air quality warnings in 1960, we would have never been allowed outside at all. The combination of the water and the air would have made Erin Brockovich throw up her hands and run for cover. The hillsides had been choked and were devoid of any vegetation. What did our lungs look like?


Our playground contained equipment that would be banned today. Corroded from the very air that we inhaled and corrupted from exposure to too many Idaho winters, we survived playing on it. A tetherball hung from a pole. We would beat the crap out of it but I don’t think we ever completed a game. It seemed the only rule was you couldn’t grab the rope. I do not even know if that was a legitimate game or just something we had in Idaho. It was featured in Napoleon Dynamite, a film that was a pretty accurate portrayal of Idaho life.

Inside that schoolhouse, we received a quality education. Outside we were subjected to toxins, but inside we were exposed to music, art, and literature. Though I can’t recite what I had for lunch yesterday, I can recall from memory several poems that I learned nearly 50 years ago. Any aptitude I possessed for creative writing was nurtured inside that building. Though most of our parents, who were employed by the very company that was poisoning us, had not completed high school, many of us went on to earn advanced degrees. The foundation that I received at Silver King Elementary School prepared me for the future. Thank you Mrs.Woolum.

39 comments:

Blondie said...

Oh Wah Wah.

I grew up in Los Alamos--Home of the Manhattan Project--and rare cancerous tumors. I spent one summer working "around the corner" from the "Plutonium Facility."

While I am a Pasty White Girl of Scotch/Irish descent, I still have to wonder when people remark about my "glow."

floreta said...

yeah, we had tetherball in my playground too. and not in idaho..

myrtle beached whale said...

Floreta:

I must write for shit if all you got out of this post was tetherball.

paisley said...

i find it interesting that the first two sunday scribblings i read for the prompt are about elementary school.... that wasn't the image it brought to my mind at all.... but then gain... my mind seldom follows the path of normalcy....

sounds like yours shouldn't either if you grew up around all of that toxicity...

ah,, the good old days when the streets smelled of steel mills and rubber works where i came from in ohio......

Rinkly Rimes said...

Mrs Woolum certainly doesn't look contaminated by anything other than good will!

myrtle beached whale said...

Rinkly: Mrs. Woolum was my 2nd grade teacher and 50 years later she is still going strong. She raised 3 educators and I am certain she is still giving them the value of her knowledge.

Paisley: I am sure I carry more heavy metal with me than a Led Zeppelin roadie. You must be from Akron. That is the only place I can think of that can give you the aroma of both steel and rubber.

Michelle said...

sheesh, the way you spoke to floreta, I'm afraid to say a word about tether ball and Napoleon Dynamite! ;)
You reminded me of the good old days, pre-EPA, when the dump 1/2 mile from my house was allowed to burn trash... we grew accustomed to loud explosions, and fire truck sirens. There was a swamp adjacent to the dump where I'm sure there were lethal levels and combinations of various chemicals... we tried to catch frogs there. Why didn't our parents keep us away from that crap?

Redheels said...

It sounds like you had some good and some bad up there in Idaho. Back in the 60's it was a different world for sure.

Your post reminds me of that song A Different World by Bucky Covington.

Thanks for posting. I always enjoy them.

myrtle beached whale said...

Michelle:
Too much? LOL Our parents didn't protect us because 1) they were powerless, trying to make a living. 2) they didn't know any better. When I was a toddler I rode standing up in the front seat of the car. When my mother applied the brakes, her right arm automatically barred me from slamming into the windshield. Now, I do the same with my dog. She loved me and I love him.

Granny Smith said...

This really resonated with me. I too received an excellent education in a public elementary school. I, too, can recite poems learned 80(!) years ago. We had tether-ball, which I hated. I always dodged it as it swung toward me.

It's a wonder you survived the toxins to which you were exposed. I'm glad you did so that we could enjoy your vivid writing.

GreenishLady said...

Hi, Rick. Thought I'd try the link from Sunday Scribblings, and gained instant access to both the post and the comments! Great!

Lucy said...

ah HA! this explains that extra thumb on your neck!!
isn't it amazing how foolishly dangerous we lived back then? So lucky you've lived this long!

danni said...

bittersweet, isn't it, how much and how well we managed not only to survive but beyond that to actually thrive! in those toxic environments - good to lose those dangers, but sad to have lost a simpler way of life where we could play outside at all hours on the streets close to someone's home - imagine that we were adequately amused with just an old tin can! --- these are great memories, thanks for sharing!!!

Go Figure said...

Whale: The chemical laden creek has nothing to do with any health problems, nor the smelter, or any of that other stuff...it was the airport. What with all those planes, with their contrails, coming and going...that is what caused the problems...such as long hair and beards. HA!

gel said...

From chilling toxic images to nurturing your creativity to that wonderful photo of your teacher, a mixed concoction of memories. Although your mind was nurtured, the effects on all of you there in that area health wise nauseates me...and it should.

Being green (and more green) for our planet and improving pollution and safety standards is vitally important. Your post showed that vividly and the fact that the seed was planted early for you to write. Keep writing!

(Friendly advice:The measure of your work has nothing to do with comment number or content. Many people, me included often leave brief comments even though we DO understand there was much more to the post than what we typed.)

forgetfulone said...

This was a great post!

Laini Taylor said...

Jeez. Glad you grew up healthy in spite of all the crap. And great to hear about good teachers :-)

myrtle beached whale said...

Go Figure: I have heard that Smelterville is no longer a hub.

Gel: Thanks for the advice but you need to be aware of the title of my blog. ;) I appreciate all comments. Even those from people who only come here to lure me to their blog.

Laini: Who says I'm healthy? LOL

Ann said...

It's interesting how blithely we used to poison the environment while being so concerned with feeding children's minds with the very best.

My father grew up in a mining area of New Mexico. He lived and went to school in the shadow of the smelter smokestacks. His parents never seemed concerned about health issues (and might not have known of their existence) but they were fanatical about their children's education.

Compare that to now, when so many parents are mindful of physical dangers to the point of fanaticism, while letting their children steep their minds in trash TV and video games of questionable merit. Parents throw fits if their children make bad grades, but blame the teachers, not the kids themselves.

I speak in generalities, of course. There are many wonderful parents now, just as there were back in the day. But isn't it interesting how the big picture mindset has changed?

Interesting post, and it certainly took me back to my own days of dangerous playground equipment and exhaust from cars that ran on leaded gasoline.

myrtle beached whale said...

Ann:

Hey, I have strict rules against the comments being better written than the post. So cut it out. You will make me think you actually read the blog.

My parents were uneducated, as were the majority of my peers parents. Underground miners and lumberjacks. Most of them pushed for us to do well in school as it was really the only way of not repeating their lives. I must have been a huge disappointment.

BJ Roan said...

OMG! I grew up in a farming community. I remember seeing smoke stacks belching black smoke in the city, but fortunately didn't have them near my house. It's stories like this that make me appreciate the EPA. I have a Ms. Woolum in my past, too. Excellent post.

Mary said...

The elementary school I went to was located right next to a large bus company... and I mean right next to. The fence that separated them was probably only 15 feet away from my 4th grade classroom.

Since there was no air conditioning in the school, whenever possible, the windows were open. We spent days learning long division while breathing in diesel fumes.

This was long before the days of "huffing," but a lot of kids would walk up to the fence, as close as they could to one of the exhausts, and enjoy the high.

Still, we all survived.

The school my kids go to now provides me with air and water quality reports twice a year, and warns me anytime they are going to spray for bugs, so that I can choose to keep my kids home if I want.

Still, I'm pretty sure that my education was as good or better than what my kids get today.

Lilibeth said...

This was fun to read, even if it made me cringe at all the toxicity you grew up in. At least the corruption was only on the outside. Yea for teachers. Oh, and we had tetherball too--at Puebla, Mexico.

myrtle beached whale said...

OK, I will stipulate that tether ball is a universal game. I am surprised it is not an Olympic event. I guess it makes as much sense as combining skiing and shooting in the biathlon. But would it be a summer or winter event as it was always bloody cold when we played.

Rena said...

Hooray for Mrs. Woolum! As a former elementary teacher, I just had to say how it is so great the way your education had such a far-reaching effect on your life.
I haven't participated in Sunday Scribblings in ages but still come around every now and then to see what people have written.
I really enjoy your blog. You have a unique voice. You're not afraid to tell it like you see it and you do so in an articulate and often very funny way. (Your post about the Indian beggars in Wyoming is one of the funniest pieces I've ever read.)
Hope you keep blogging!

Tumblewords: said...

And you don't mention the burning air from the fields, the air flow from Hanford and...
How did we survive without seatbelts? With only a mother's loving arm to swat us into behaving and keep us out of the windshield! The floating green shows no sign of the continuing toxicity of the lake.
Tetherball. We also used the pole for the MayDay Dance - weaving crepe paper ribbons as we bobbled around.

linda may said...

Thank God thing have improved on that score eh!
I used to play with crumbled asbestos roofing and find live bullets near the firing range when I was a kid living on army bases. He he. And melted my Dad's fishing sinkers to mold into different shapes. See what that did to my IQ. I also played in big drainage pipes and poked blue ringed octopus with my bare fingers. I survived. Yeah, sometimes I wonder though.

myrtle beached whale said...

Tumblewords: No burning in our part of Idaho. Except forest fires. No fields to burn. I think the tetherball pole probably had been licked a few times too, conducting that winter experiment.

Rena: Thanks for coming back. There will be more stories of my misadventures. Truth is stranger than fiction. Particularly in my case.

gautami tripathy said...

That was some post! A pleasure to read it. As always..

phantasmagoria

Crystal Nixon said...

Loved reading this, the playground equipment in your photos reminded me of my elementary school play grounds and the summer camps I went to as a child. Fortunately we didn't have all the pollution, and now the schools have finally updated and gotten rid of the old play ground stuff. Makes me long for days when playing tag and dodge ball were still allowed.

Linda - Nickers and Ink said...

What a fun travelogue!


Hey, today's prompt at MEME EXPRESS is PHANTOM.

Feel free to stop by and leave a comment with a link to your post today!

Blessings,
Linda

MEME EXPRESS – daily blog prompts

Silver Valley Girl said...

As the daughter of Mrs. Woolum, it is nice to see 30 years later the hills are green, the water runs clear, and my own children now are taught by some wonderful, caring teachers here in the Silver Valley.

As I look back on those Smelter Smoke days, bare hills, and milky waters, I don't think I thought much of it. It was just the way it was. I didn't know any different. I don't remember anyone ever telling me not to swim in Lead Creek...you just knew not to.

Wonderful post...glad we all survived!!

Sparky said...

Last spring, my girls and I stumbled on one of those ancient slides on the Fort Grounds. They had never seen a metal slide like that before. We all took a trip down the slide and I shared stories about slide burns in the summer and ice burns in the winter.

Our hills are green but the damage can still be seen.

JBelle said...

NO WAY. Mrs. Woolum was your teacher?!

Absolutely marvelous post. I love to come over to your blog because I find it relaxing and soothing. Kind of like Carolina? And no matter what you are playing, I really like it. Hope you are doing well. Happy New Year.

BTW, it is startling, in the truest sense of the word, to ride around the CdA River Valley these days and see that water a usual river-water color.

inlandempiregirl said...

As the second daughter of Mrs. Woolum I really love this post. I remember the time kids teased Mike Rucker on the slide that matched the one you posted. I also remember students like Kirk H. getting permission to wade into the zinc laden "Government Creek" to retrieve the red playground ball. I think Mrs. Woolum must have nutured her own childrens' creativity also. That is one of my favorite pictures of Mom.

orionsbow said...

Rick, this really brings it back. Remind me to tell you about the open, grey water settling pond that stood just outside the back door of the cafeteria at my elementary school in Kannapolis, NC. Proley 'splains a lot of things about me.

aimee anderson mccorkle said...

Excellent Post. I was born in the 70s in Kellogg, Idaho. I remember the day they blew them smoke stacks down! My grandpa worked at Bunker and my other grandpa died in the fire at Sunshine;RIP Arnold Anderson. If you have never been to the silver valley, you dont know its devastation. Of course our parents didn't know of the dangers. They were just trying to get through union strikes and money issues. Today, its not as easy to see. The hills have started to grow again, the towns are trying to thrive. Someone enjoying a ride up the gondola, would never know the drive it took to get to the old Jackass lodge, or the barren hills they were enjoying. To Blondie...the one that said wah wah, you have no clue! Everyone has their own story. Now as an adult, it seems to me the life expectancy seems to be about 52. After a long hard life in the mining and silver valley community, many men have left us at that young age. Most of them were children when the stacks were blowing and again without high school education went to work in the mines. My dad; Ronnie Anderson, lost his battle 3 years ago, at the wonderful age of 52. To say that the gentlemen that wrote this is healthy, well, i would be willing to bet, he has faced some of the same issues as the ones still in the silver valley. Kudos to you for putting this out here! It is a shame that so many people can tell this same sort of story from around the globe. If it wasnt lead or silver, it was coal dust. Or the black storm the crossed the nation when there was a shortage of water...not exactly sure when that was; but i bet thats quite the story also.
alwaysanderson

Anonymous said...

That was amazing and to a "T"... It amazes me how many of us have fought cancer because of this upbringing.. Some win, some lose the battle.. I, personally have fought it and survived (13 years now) but I have several family members that grew up in the valley and have lost that battle... Nothing has been done to The Bunker Hill company because of this, which is too bad.. Thank You. And to that Blondie CHIC, I say Wah Wah to you, ONE summer? Try an entire upbringing!!!!

Anonymous said...

I too attended Silver King in the early 60's and well remember the pollution. You'd walk home with a metallic taste in your mouth and when Mom hung the washing outside to dry the acid in the air would literally eat little holes in the fabric. There were open pools of arsenic and lead contaminated water and heaven only knows what else in the gulches. We lost a dog who got addicted to drinking from them.

So whenever I hear someone complain about the EPA and government regulations I have to say ... "Yeah, but you know ..."

Joe