Things We Miss and Why We Miss Them

I’ve always been a sentimental guy—there are songs I still can’t hear without getting emotional thinking about my grandpa, who died in 1989. Until recently, I’d never put any serious thought into why certain things captivate me so completely. One such anomaly is my unfettered passion for giant stripping shovels.

My first memory of a working shovel is from 1987. I couldn’t have known it was the last time my biological father would ever come get me for a weekend, so I was full of normal kid-like enthusiasm. He took me to see the GEM of Egypt, which spent its entire life within twenty minutes of my hometown of Holloway, Ohio, and even crossed state route 331 right outside our corporation limits in the 1970s. It was early in the morning when we went, barely daylight, and foggy. I remember feeling a sense of extreme wonder at the sight of the lights on the boom. The majesty of the machine was like nothing I’d ever beheld before, and I couldn’t look away. I loved playing in the dirt, and seeing those mammoth scoops of earth carved out of the high wall and gently discarded a couple hundred feet away dropped my jaw like a magician cutting a woman in half. I remember thinking I’d love to climb that spoil pile. I don’t remember much of my dad, and I truly don’t care to, but I’ll never forget seeing those bits of rock and dirt roll down the spoil. There’s really nothing like watching the earth remade before your eyes.

In 1991, after the boom had been dropped, my step-dad (who I just call “dad” these days) took me to see the GEM. We drove right up to it and walked underneath the gargantuan machine. Even without a boom and mostly gutted, it was still breathtakingly enormous. The crawlers were unreal. I’m sure my dad reminded me about the time my grandpa had taken me to see The Mountaineer getting scrapped before he died, and just like now, I probably didn’t remember much of that. Someone in a hardhat driving a CONSOL truck screamed up to us, jumped out of his vehicle, and shouted that we weren’t allowed to be there. My dad, quick-thinking just as I’ve come to expect from him over all these years, said he was just there to inquire about any job openings for scrappers. In retrospect, I doubt the guy was buying the excuse, but at the time I was 10 and it seemed brilliant to me. I couldn’t wait to tell my mom how clever he was!

For years after, I would see the Silver Spade from time to time along various roads in Harrison County. Rarely was I afforded the opportunity to stop and watch it—that is, until I got my driver’s license and could go see it on my own. By that time, in the late 1990s, liability concerns made it increasingly difficult to get as close as I had gotten as a young kid. I would pull over and watch it work from a distance, wishing I could get closer. Over the years, I’d visit the old girl whenever I had a chance, and at some point in the 2000s, the Spade was idled while waiting for permits, so I would go see it at night and get pretty close. Even idled, the boom lights could be seen for miles. I started dating a girl (with whom I would later have my daughter) who appreciated my enthusiasm for the shovel, and we would go see it together. Eventually the Spade would cross state route 519, and we were able to go see the shovel numerous times after that, sitting and talking together.

It’s not lost on me how fortunate I am to have seen some of these giants up close at all, and especially that I was able to enjoy The Silver Spade all the way up to its demise in 2007. Some folks had their favorite local behemoth cut down fifteen or twenty years earlier, and would’ve killed for one more day taking in the spectacles in their neighborhood cuts. Others never had a chance to see these marvels at all. It’s bittersweet though, because the heartbreak of having the twinkle of hope for saving the shovel extinguished in 2007 hurt so much more than it would have if I had never gotten so close to it.

My daughter was born in 2005, and is now 11. I’ve taken her to see the Big Muskie bucket many times, as it’s only about 40 minutes from me. I’ve also taken her to see the cab and bucket from The Silver Spade at its current resting place near New Athens, Ohio. She knows how enthusiastic I am about this stuff, but she doesn’t quite understand why. Recently while she was at school I came across some footage of the Spade working in the cut, with close-up shots of the operator in his cab, and I couldn’t wait to show her when she got home. I wanted to give her a better perspective on exactly how big the shovel was, and a better grasp on the proportion of the bucket and cab she had seen in person. When I showed her, she wasn’t jumping out of her skin with excitement the way I was. Taken aback, I realized that every memory of my life relating to these shovels had built a huge fire in me, but that she will never feel what I feel for them because she’ll never see one in person. She’ll never see one getting scrapped. She’ll never sit with her significant other on the hood of a car and just listen to the twang of the cables and the powerful bang of the bucket biting into the overburden.

I apologized for making her watch the video, and even at 11, she could tell I was disappointed. She told me she thought it was cool and thanked me for showing her (everyone thinks the world of their own kids, but I’ve never known a child as young as mine who is as thoughtful and caring about whether people around her are happy). Her thoughtfulness struck a nerve in me and I fought to hold back tears. She asked, “Why do you like to look at stuff that makes you sad?” I started to explain, “Someday you will remember a time when things were different, whether it’s a store you used to shop in that will go out of business, a school you used to attend that eventually crumbles in on itself…” As my train of thought continued, my words did not.

I get emotional about these things because of the way they have tied me to people. The GEM tied me to my father who hasn’t bothered to be a part of my life for 29 years but whose last memory I have was of seeing the GEM, and that same shovel ties me to a great memory of the early part of a lifelong respect and adoration for my step-dad who is just “dad” now. The entire stripped landscape of Belmont and Harrison counties where I grew up tie me to my grandpa and all the places he would take me fishing and off-roading. The Spade sparks memories of all kinds, from riding past it in my mom’s car to seeing it later when first driving my own car, to those times I shared with Lily’s mom—with whom I spent almost 6 years, filled with some great memories.

The common thread with all of them is the link they provide to a different time in my life. When I first saw the GEM, I had never lost anyone. I was innocent and pure and unharmed by the world. Now, I’ve lost so many people. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and even my younger brother are gone now. But when I see those old shovels, it’s like I’m taken into another era where they’re all still here.

My daughter doesn’t need to be burdened with that kind of sadness. She still sees the world as almost pure joy. Rather than explaining to her that someday she’ll look back to a time when people she loved were still here, I decided she should just go back to playing and let me carry the heartache for now. Someday there might be something she’s fascinated by and she’ll want to share that with children of her own. But I can’t make my memories her memories; only time will tell what nostalgia brings for her.

Thanks to Facebook, I’ve been very lucky to find a whole group of people who share my passion for the history of stripping machines, and reading their memories and viewing their photos is like a kind of catharsis for me. The Historical Stripping Shovel Archive is as much a support group as it is a gathering of enthusiasts. To everyone with whom I’ve connected, and to the group’s creator James Stine: Sincerely, thank you.

-J

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~ by hamiltonjacobs on January 10, 2017.

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