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West Virginia, Rolling Heartbreak
An Explosion in Ghent

Another scar for West Virginia

Ghent is not quite a town in southern West Virginia. It’s one of those unincorporated sprawls of hills and scraggles interrupted from mile to mile by clusters of houses or odd-looking hillsides that, while covered by vegetation, still bear the memories of having once been ripped and mined for all the coal they were worth: Tree-lines suddenly stop or look markedly younger, grasses grow like the tufty hair on cancer patients’ scalps, though in winter it’s hard to tell the difference between the earth’s natural browns and its revolted ones. Ghent, pronounced Gent, like the beginning of “gentleman,” has two things to keep it on the map. Maybe three. Flat Top Lake. Winterplace Ski Resort, a place that, as I remember it back in the 1990s, was already feeling the effects of global warming enough to weave in and out of business. And Ghent Elementary School, Home of the Lions, which once produced the county’s (Raleigh County) teacher of the year, a wonderful and pretty woman, Patti Lamb, on whom I may have indulged a crush for the few hours I spent with her the morning I went to her school, some seventeen or eighteen years ago, to profile her for the obligatory newspaper feature: she may very well have been my first Teacher of the Year profile. It was a sunny, cold day. She kept, I think, a little garden with and for her students. I vaguely remember that years later, in those brief catch-up conversations with old friends from the place, I was told that some great misfortune may have claimed her. Cancer? Death? Worse: She lost a son. She left the school and a few years ago returned, re-married and re-named (she's now Patti Morum). I was subsequently able to scrounge up the clip and put facts to memory, from October 1990: “Patti Jo Lamb's first students many years ago were stuffed animals, dolls, her little brother and her little sister...” She'd been teaching seventeen years by then: Exactly the half-way mark of her career until now. No mention of a garden in the story, though I can't shake the sun from my eyes whenever I think back to her classroom. That was Ghent then for me: a calm, sunny, happy place. All this came to mind Tuesday afternoon when I noticed a brief link on the front page of the Times’ web site: “Explosion destroys gas station in West Virginia.” I went off to my old paper’s web site for the story: “Four people were confirmed dead and at least four others reportedly suffered serious or critical injuries as a result of an explosion at the Little General Store on U.S.19 in Ghent […] the original 911 call came in at 10:43 a.m. and reported a propane leak at the gas station, which is across the street from the Flat Top Lake entrance. When firefighters arrived on the scene less than 10 minutes later […], the tank exploded, completely leveling the store and blowing a large fire truck from the Ghent Volunteer Fire Department onto its side. Among those killed […] were one firefighter and one EMS worker.” I’d stopped at that Ghent general store once or twice, the kind of store that sold Coke in the old glass bottles and where lingering seemed like the least dangerous thing in the world. I-77 slashed by at the intersection with U.S. 19, dumping the occasional traveler to keep the service station in business. Ghent alone never could. And now: gone, and with it four lives, including a fireman and paramedic who’d answered a call about the fatal gas leak that blew in their face. There’s no point to this story anymore than there’s point to the explosion. On thing triggers another. S stupid gas leak. A distant trickle of memories. A gaping crater from an explosion no one could have possibly imagined in a somnolent place like Ghent, not because explosions like that are foreign to southern West Virginians. Not at all. They’re too common. But they happen underground, where methane is the eternal terrorist. I once hated West Virginia, those first couple of years when I felt like an exile twice over in the thick of its hills, hills that stand in so many ways in proud counterpoint to the rest of the nation. Then I fell in love with the state as I’ve not loved any state as deeply, as personally, though like Lebanon it’s a heartbreak of a place, every little while reminding you why.

 

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