All roads lead to Harrisburg. Growing up we crawled along Hwy. 45 north from Mississippi. Today, I go by way of I-64. To passing eyes, Harrisburg seems little more than banks, restaurants, and a few converted shops. Downtown stands a shell of empty storefronts, but I seek the Harrisburg of yesteryear that continues on in the fragmented remains of shadowed street corners, in the faces of antiquity, and in my own memories of my grandmother, Nellie Malone.
Popular St. rises up from the east, westward. Feet on blacktop drum out the rhythm of old Harrisburg. Ghostly voices can be heard rising from beneath the brick that lies beneath the blacktop: voices of men marching to and from the mines, voices full of songs full of melancholy, and chants suited for hard labor beneath the ground. They sing, “Drill ye Tarriers, drill.”
Popular St. later drops from the east, westward past homes and crumbling retaining walls. The wind sighs. Once these long neglected porches teamed with activity: children played jack, mothers snapped beans in the setting sun, with the eyes of both to the horizon in expectation of husbands returning from the mines.
The name of Tarrier was given to those who labored on the railway, blasting earth with dynamite and heavy, oppressive, cast-iron drills. The image carries with it the image of a miner: blast-torn, ragged, and prematurely aged. In a word: ancient.
The wind that sighed at the sight of town groans at the sight of my grandmother’s house, like the groan of the giant Atlas rumored to hold the world. Grandmother’s home alone of all this aged country seems unchanged by the passage of years. My mind throws shadows of younger days along the sidewalk and porch. The light falls upon the window such that I almost believe she still stands behind the sink, busied with the next meal.
I stop; the world stops. Atlas bends his head out of respect to this noble race of humanity, kings and queens who have walked and lived in the unremembered days of Illinois. Illinois has given sons for wars and husbands to the mines that America might have peace and coal, and with coal heat, and with heat life: life for life, breath for breath, sons for freedom.
History yawns to dwell upon these unremarkable lives, but not I. And as I walk again, I am not alone. I tread the sordid ground with the ghosts of ages past, westward in the great exodus as New 13 gives way to Old 13. Blacktop gives way to gravel. Gravel gives way to dirt, and dirt gives way to grass, as the world grows young around me, at the regress of time. At the point that Carrier Mills breaks in upon Harrisburg, there stands a white house. The year: 1921.
In 1921, my grandmother was born. The chants of ghostly Tarriers fall to a whisper. Copeland’s Fanfare for the Common Man gives voice to the silent themes of struggle and weakness, joy, tears, hopes, fears, and the gracious or ungracious reality of aging, watching the world change so much that it forgets its virgin places: farms, fields, mines, and the people that made them alive.
In her last days, my grandmother withered. Trapped in the shell of a body, an empty storefront to a passionate soul, she was unable to respond to life and the insatiable desire to sit upon a porch snapping beans in expectation of a returning husband. Eventually, Grandma sighed and said, “No one should have to live like this.” No one should have to die like that. Her husband died in 1969 of Black Lung. Long my grandmother has sat watching the horizon for someone who would not come again, not in this life.
When all the world is dark, and the moon rises high, all is quiet and still, save for the single breath of wind that stirs the corn stalks to a hushed whisper, a whisper so sweet that it might well be the voice of God speaking to those of us who remain, speaking as God once spoke to Elijah saying, “Peace child, peace.”
So I echo the refrain: peace fields, peace. Peace, you whispering voices of ancient Tarriers. Peace, Atlas. Peace, you kings and queens of the common man. Peace you old bricks covered in tar, peace. Peace you Harrisburg of yesteryear, and peace dear Grandmother. The pain has passed. Be at peace.
In Memory of Mrs. Albert Nellie Dallas Malone.
Born 1921, Carrier Mill, Illinois.
Died 2004, Marion, Illinois.