I often visited the old man (the junk man) and woman (the book lady) because I liked reading stories in their stash of pulp magazines. Zane Grey’s Western magazine was my favorite. As soon as I finished one story I would begin another and often read the same story over again. I practically had the story memorized, and I would go outside to reenact the plot. Cowboys and rustlers. The beautiful teacher abducted by the evil mine boss. My trusted dog would help me save the day! There was no limit to what my two-sided brain could conjure up on a hot and humid summer day in anthracite coal country.
I also liked to scavenge the areas around the abandoned coal mines searching for treasures left behind after the mines stopped operating. When I brought a stray pulley I had found or stumbled upon a length of rusted metal, the old man acted like I had brought him a million dollars as he added them to his junk collection. I once brought back an empty cobalt-blue glass bottle that glistened like a sapphire gem. It was probably worthless but the old man treated the bottle as priceless, telling me it should be set in a king or queen’s crown. It inspired me to bring back more.
One day, my magical kingdom took a turn for the worse. As a child there was never a time I did not have a dog, and every one of them was named Lassie, male or female. I was obsessed with the movie "Lassie, Come Home" filmed in 1943. Between Zane Grey and Lassie, I had everything I needed to conjure up a life and death story where some nine-year-old hero comes to the rescue.
While on another scavenger hunt, I heard a strange sound coming from the mine area and the surrounding waste heaps. It was a faint wailing that sounded desperate, like a crying baby. When I honed in on the place it was coming from, I walked up to the edge of a cavernous excavation. As I scanned the deep ravine I saw a dog who had fallen off the edge and landed onto a narrow ledge about 50 feet above the crater’s bottom. Had the fall just happened or did it occur days ago? It had to be some time ago, because the dog was skinny and hardly moving.
There was no escape! There was no way for me to reach the desperate dog from the top. There was no way for the dog to jump off the ledge and survive the leap. Who to call? No phones. Certainly no cell phones. I stood frozen looking down at the helpless animal. No matter how much I tried to figure out a rescue, I came up empty. As I considered the likely outcome, I found myself fighting back tears. I sat on the ground and imagined I was stroking the poor dog, hoping it would be a source of comfort.
I decided to walk back to the junk man and see if he could help the dog. He was physically limited but he still returned to the ravine with me. As we approached the ravine, there was stone silence. I was immediately heartbroken. Life was not a story where we could change the ending or soften the hard parts with a happy thought or a redeeming gesture. This time I would not be the hero.