A SHORT RIDE HOME
As George's faithful old Chevy reached the crest of the hill, the full moon loomed before him like a huge vanilla lantern in the clear Pennsylvania sky. In the bright light of the moon, piles of cotton puffs dotting the landscape became heaps of slowly-melting snow, the remnants of a late winter storm.
Coal country, that's what people called this part of the state, and there on the Mahanoy Mountain, just five miles from Shamokin, coal was still King. Just beyond the little village of Burnside, a large tract of woods on the West side of the hill had been replaced by a grassy field after many months of strip mining.
East Cameron folks like George Bronkoskie, who followed the two-lane mountain road on their way to and from Shamokin, were not pleased at the trade-off made by modern-day coal barons. There were few enough deer left in these parts, without taking away countless acres of their forest home.
About the time the locals had grudgingly adjusted to the loss, a new stripping area was started on the East side. Once again, tall stands of timber were gobbled up, while monstrous bulldozers resumed their treasure hunt, digging deep into the earth to pull out buried gems of coal and piling the ravaged soil in mountainous heaps near the road.
"It's a real mess, ain't it?" George muttered to his dozing wife. Forcing his mind to focus on more pleasurable topics, he turned his attention to the two grandkids who sat quietly in the back seat, engrossed in their hand-held games.
"Ho-Butt," he said, employing the unique coal region greeting still used by the older generation, "did I ever tell yuz about the butcher shop on Water Street?"
"Yeh, Pappy, you told us," the older one responded, not lifting his eyes from the game.
George didn't say another word, but his mind went back to Crone's Butcher Shop, and the exciting events of his younger days.
It always began when one of the kids in the family spotted the arrival of the stakebody truck, maneuvering until it was backed right up to the sidewalk. No matter the weather, the neighborhood kids would come running, yelling, "Crone's are gettin' cows!"
George snorted at the memory; those steers were anything but cows! Angry and ornery, they balked at the indignity of being pulled down the wooden ramp and into the brick-walled stock room. They challenged the surrogate cowboys who had to bravely enter the back of the truck and thread a bull-rope through the ring in each steer's nose.
Once in a while, as the wide-eyed audience watched, a frightened steer broke loose, and galloped down the street with the frantic men in pursuit! Once, as George's two little sisters were sashaying down the sidewalk towards "Whitey's" candy store, they were suddenly yanked into the yard of a neighbor who had received the shock of her life when she stepped outside to retrieve her mail. The two little girls never saw the steer bearing down on them until they were safe in the yard, wondering why a cow was running down the sidewalk.
George was glad his wife was dozing and the grandkids were engrossed with their games. It gave him ample time to daydream.
"Why, when I was a boy...." he thought, sitting up taller, as though someone gave rapt attention to his every word.
After the steers were safely confined, Act Two of the big show started, literally, with a bang. Neighborhood children watched in fascination, clinging to the bottom halves of the double barn doors to watch the spectacle. From the killing of the steer with a .22 rifle, to skinning and cutting it into fresh cuts of beef, George and his friends loved every minute of the process.
As the first hide was being dragged over to the double doors, George realized they were home. Reluctantly, he left the butcher shop and turned up his newly-paved driveway. After 15 years, they were finally able to have the bumpy dirt lane covered over with blacktop.
They'd had their struggles here in the coal region, but all-in-all, it was a good place to live.
As they climbed out of the Chevy, George looked up, just in time to see a star lose its grip and slide gleefully through the night sky, as though it, too, was reliving the days of its childhood, and enjoying the memories of a good life.