Coping with that sinking feeling

Last week in Guatemala City a 330-foot-deep sinkhole swallowed a dozen homes. It even ate two kids. Officials blamed hard rains and underground sewage flowing from a ruptured main. Poor kids were flushed into eternity. You might think nobody should have to leave this world that way. I tend to disagree.
As a Coast Guardsman in the 1970s, when the federal Clean Water Act was first enacted, I heard a yarn about a fellow whose ashes where flushed into Puget Sound. Seems that the Coasties out in Seattle provided locals with the service of scattering loved ones at sea. When the harbor police pulled their cutter over to say the new federal statute forbad the practice, the sailors took Ol’ Charlie below decks and flushed him into eternity.
Still earlier in my life, sinkholes where commonplace. Born and raised in hard coal country, my pals and I took for granted the sight of homes along the highway buckled in their mid-sections as the undermined ground beneath their foundations slowly subsided. When one home in Coaldale suddenly dropped its first story into the ground while the owners were having breakfast, Uncle Sam relocated the residents of that block.
Centralia, Pennsylvania, gets the grand prize, though. That’s where an underground mine fire has been burning for decades. When our kids where little, I took them there to see the many holes from which sulfurous fumes spewed. This was in the early 1990s, when only a handful of hardy holdouts still lived in the few still-standing homes. In spectacular contrast to the sulfur and the ash-covered trees, the town-folk had planted wildflowers everywhere. The fields of flowers were spectacular.
Holes in the earth have fascinated people forever. Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” produced a major motion picture, improbably staring singer Pat Boone, in 1959. Reportedly, actor Brendan Fraser will reproduce the role this summer in a new feature film. In “The Core” (2003) Hilary Swank and Aaron Eckhart found time to get it on while flying to the center of the planet to give Mother Earth’s molten center a nuclear jumpstart. For my money, though, the mother of all deep-hole movies is “The Descent,” available in DVD. This 2005 thriller about a group of female spelunkers, who are trapped and stalked by blind fiends, gives a new meaning to the term “Chick Flick.”
In the early 19th century, some scientists thought there were holes at the poles. They visualized the oceans pouring into these holes and spilling back out… well, somewhere else, I guess. Although this theory was long ago disproved, we now know the Antarctic has an ozone hole. Not the same thing at all as the “holes in the poles” theory, but perhaps more troubling.
Our fascination with holes in the earth may be due to the aptness of a sink hole as a metaphor for the human condition. Many things come quickly to mind: Iraq and Afghanistan as bottomless sink holes for our tax dollars. Congress as the abyss of ethical conduct. Media coverage of Anna Nicole Smith’s strange death as the nadir of journalism. Britney Spears’s shaved head as the pits of desperate self-promotion.
The same can be said for “flushed” metaphors. For instance, my career has been in the toilet for some time now. A country song says, “I’m gonna’ flush you out of the bathroom of my heart.” Then again, a royal flush is the best you can do in a poker game. Flush with money is also a good thing.
On balance, I don’t want to be put in a dark hole when I die, folks. Like ‘Ol Charlie in Seattle, I’m opting for my own royal flush.


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