I have an intimate relationship with lead. After all, I come from Leadwood--a dried up, southern Missouri lead mining town. The population is less that a thousand, and is located in what is known in Missouri as the Lead Belt. The mines closed in the twenties and the town had pretty much died with it. Leadwood had briefly boomed—there was one a movie theater, a grocery store, a place that sold furniture, a roller rink and a few restaurants. Now there’s just churches, the high school, a liquor store and the chat dump.
My father was a lead miner, although he didn’t work the Leadwood mines. Those were closed in my grandpa's day. Dad drove, or shared rides, out to the St. Joe mines in Viburnam, MO, about an hour drive from Leadwood. Except that my dad would often save the snack cake my mom packed in his lunch bucked for me, I can barely remember this, though I heard the stories most of my life. It was hard work, work he loved.
The chat dump is a pile of chat (lead and sand) that was pumped up from the mines. We had three in the general area—one in Leadwood, one in Bonne Terre and one in Park Hills. When my mother-in-law first moved to Southern Missouri, she thought it was a domed stadium. They are that big, and the chat covers everything. It’s impossible to keep a car clean for long. The effects of the actual lead on the residents of the area aren’t something I know, except through lore. Apparently, we have a very high rate of cancer, suicide, violence and sterility, and now and again you hear stories of scientist coming to test the water. Otherwise, the chat is just something we live with.
The above picture gives a decent idea of the height of the chat dump, but not the sprawl of one. Besides the mound, there are also miles of flat chat. When I was a kid, my dad and brother would take us there ride around in our dune buggy. Even as a baby, I was taken there to play. Often, on Sundays, motorcycles would drag race there, and when I was a teenager it’s where we went to drink cheap beer and wish for something better to do with our lives. It was technically still property of St. Joe, so the Leadwood police never came into the chat dump. There were so many ways out, that there was no use in them sitting at an exit and waiting for us. The police were resigned to it—most of them had drank there as kids as well.
These days, however, the Leadwood chat dump has been knocked down and closed off. I suppose it’s for the best. Several people have died there over the years in vehicle accidents—Jay Coleman and I once tried to climb it in his Dad’s truck, and nearly rolled over ourselves. Plus, it keeps some of the lead out of the air. Still, with all of that, it saddens me as well. I’ve had a lot of good times there.
Recently, Erin Brockovich has made a few appearances. She brought some twenty lawyers, a toxicologist, and a few other investigators. We were on Fox news. In the local paper half of us found hope and thought of her as a miracle. The other half defended the chat dump. If it was good enough for our fathers, good enough for us, it was good enough for our children.
My dad had a glass pyramid with a piece of lead in it that he’d been given for twenty years of service in the mines. Not much longer he was laid off for good. He didn't have a high school diploma and he was in his 50s, so it was a long while before he found another job. We ate a lot of squirrel. Dad kept the pyramid in the basement on a shelf with a bunch of other junk. I don’t really know if he was proud of it or not. He died of cancer a few years back, and I had never asked him. When I was a kid, I would take it down sometimes, read the inscription, stare at the way the lead seemed to float, carelessly, in the glass.
Where We Come From (ver. 2.0)
(Leadwood, Missouri pop. 1,200)
Matt lit a joint here
driving beneath the arms of dying trees
The moon shone through in jigsaw puzzles
that we could never quite figure out
Gravel crackled like leaves in fire
underneath the weight of tires and restless boys
And we scattered beer cans
in no particular order
across the floorboard
Annette had just broken it off with him
and he beat drums out on the dash
a blue bandanna stretched tight the veins
collapsing in his forehead
And the September air held the smell
of burning trash in the tips of her fingers
somewhere far away
We liked the looks of our faces
basked blue in electric light
the call numbers of a station we had not tuned to
we rode back into town
two cowboys and a whiskey bottle between us.
Old timers sit staring from their porches
no job to wake up to
they watch potholes for clarity
A future for the boys passes on the tailgate of a Ford
ripens like a soft apple and falls away
we ride past the foundation of the old movie house
burnt to the ground in ‘52
Glen had once stood naked there on a dare
A fake gold cap is twisted from a bottle of cheap champagne
handed palm to palm with no comment
Mandy passed out hours ago
her jeans smooth against her thighs
bone white under the moon
we whooped it up like only good old boys can do.
The hair on our hands spout into rusted wires
Matt’s teeth gleam beneath a snarled lip
Voices of the wind
lost in the hunt
are never heard from again.
The chat dump is waste spilled
from the great lead mines of the 20’s
Our grandfather’s worked there
grew old and died
and left our grandmothers with nothing
The chat dump
(sand and lead dust pumped from the earth)
looms over the town
Its sprawl is endless
a hand clenched tight
it covers everything here
like a curse
Sometimes men in suits come from the city
and test our water
We know it’s not safe, but what can you do?
My mother had sat me down in it
when I was an infant
She cast her spells under the toenail moon
chanted words men were never meant to hear
and let me be
The chat dump is where fires burn until dawn
kegs empty quickly
and twenty-somethings with nothing else to do
ponder the possibility of iron and steel
The chat dump is a desert in the heartland
Budweiser cans and cigarettes
stomped out in mid-smoke
Nothing grows here.
The chat dump
the half-shell of some cosmic turtle
the size of a domed stadium
the silence of death falling silently through our hands
Matt and I tried to climb it once
in his Daddy’s Chevy
half way up the tires stuck
and lost spin
then, backing down, we nearly rolled her to our deaths.