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‘Last man standing’ at wake for a toxic town

I found this on CNN and just had to pass it on. This is what we are talking about why we need to go green.

PICHER, Oklahoma (CNN) — Wearing powder blue pants and a plaid fedora, 84-year-old Orval “Hoppy” Ray arrived fashionably late to a celebration in Picher, Oklahoma, a vacated mining town at the center of one of the nation’s largest and most polluted toxic-waste sites.artpicherhoppypoolcnn

Hoppy Ray, 84, was among the last people to leave the toxic town of Picher, Oklahoma.

Former residents, bought out by the government because their town was deemed so dangerous, gathered in Picher’s elementary school to say farewell to a place where kids suffered lead poisoning, where homes built atop underground mines plunged into the Earth and where the local creek coughs up orange water, laced with heavy metals.

A toothpick dangling out of the corner of his chapped mouth, Ray greeted several old friends as if he were in any other small town in America.

“Hello there, Hoppy! How the hell are ya?” one called out.

Gray mountains of toxic gravel loomed behind the school, just out of sight, as Hoppy hobbled past a bundle of balloons and through the front doors, cane in hand. He tipped his hat as he entered.

“Looks like a good crowd,” he said. “Everybody seems to be havin’ a good time. That’s the main thing.”

In a town this tragic and for a person as stubborn as Hoppy, that’s a big statement.

As his abandoned town fades to dust, Hoppy has gone into the business of memories. He wants to remind townspeople, and the world, that a person’s home should always be loved — no matter how toxic.

* * * * *

artpicherstreetcnnHoppy didn’t understand what all of the fuss was about.

It was 2006, and the federal government announced it would pay people to leave Picher and the Tar Creek Superfund Site, which is part of the government’s toxic-waste cleanup program. A report had found that much of the area was at risk of collapsing into the extensive lead and zinc mines.

The buyout plan was seen as a blessing by some scared families.

But not Hoppy.

Hoppy swore he wouldn’t leave his hometown, that he would die before he’d leave Picher, even if his electricity and water were turned off.

He’d grown up there, worked in the mines alongside his father — and all three of his brothers. But Picher was more than a place to make money. It was a place of patriotism and purpose: The metals they dug out of caves deep in the ground were processed and turned into bullets that armed U.S. soldiers in both world wars.

The wars ended, though, and so did the world’s interest in Picher. By 1970, the last mine shut down.

Hoppy’s family stayed.

They couldn’t leave a place that had threaded itself into their lives so deeply.

* * * * *

After making a quick stop in the crowded school cafeteria, Hoppy found a more suitable post on the sidelines of the reunion, in a narrow hallway.

He sat in a chair with a smirk on his face, using his cane to ping friends in the shins, or sometimes in the groin, to get their attention.

“This here’s the last man standing,” one man said, chuckling, as he stopped by Hoppy’s seat.

Hoppy’s son and grandson arrived with several cardboard boxes of books, pulled from the bed of the old miner’s pickup. With the help of another local-history buff, Hoppy has self-published three books. The latest, “Just Call Me Hoppy,” chronicles his memories of a pre-toxic Picher, a time he believes everyone else has forgotten.

The book begins in 1925, when the mines were at their peak — and the year Hoppy was born.

At 17, he left Picher to fight in World War II. After he was injured when his Navy ship was hit by a suicide bomber, Hoppy returned home to finish high school and go to work in the mines.

In those years, Picher was a bustling town with neon signs “like Las Vegas,” Hoppy recalled.

When the mines slowed down and money was tight, Hoppy hustled billiard tables at a pool hall downtown. When the mines shut entirely, he bought the pool hall and hung on its walls some of his dad’s mining gear: a kerosene lamp, a helmet.

The items puzzled kids who came into the Pastime Pool Hall. What were the mines like? they asked Hoppy. What did they mine for, anyway?

Shocked by the younger generation’s ignorance, Hoppy became a collector. He asked the kids to bring in mining memorabilia. In exchange, he’d let them shoot a few rounds of pool for free.

“I thought it was important that people ought to know what Picher’s role was in two world wars,” Hoppy said. “Hell, to me, it was important. … Without the mines here in Ottawa County [Oklahoma], those wars would’ve lasted a lot longer.”

Hoppy’s book details Picher’s patriotic spirit, its sense of purpose during the wars. But it mentions the Superfund buyout only in passing and never explains that the town is toxic. It doesn’t say that four of Hoppy’s great-grandchildren tested for high levels of lead in their blood. They are among the victims of Picher’s toxic legacy.

Hoppy figures the world hears plenty about all that. He’d rather focus on the Picher he loves. The walls of his pool hall — the sign in the window says “Hoppy’s Museum” — are now papered with photos and artifacts.

Neighboring buildings are boarded up, their windows broken, the paint peeling. Tree-size weeds crack the sidewalks.

Hoppy’s pool hall breathes life into this abandoned place, where only a few people still live. On Monday nights, he opens the doors to local musicians. When he goes home, he leaves a single bulb lit over the door.

It’s the only light on the street.

* * * * *

One morning, about two weeks before Picher’s June 13 reunion, Hoppy’s son moved his dad out of town while Hoppy was at his favorite restaurant eating breakfast.

Hoppy was furious.

“I unlocked the door … and I didn’t have a stick of furniture,” he said. He stood in the entryway in disbelief.

artpicherhousecnnDavid Ray showed up behind his dad, bearing the news that Picher had left him behind. It was time to go. He was moving to Miami, a town just 10 miles south.

Hoppy remains bewildered by the situation. He lies awake at night in his new home. He tunes the television to a country-music station and blares familiar songs to try to lull himself to sleep.

On the rare instances when that has worked, Hoppy has dreamed of a pre-toxic Picher. He sees packed movie theaters and bar fights.

He sees the people from the photos on the walls of his pool hall, all of whom are gone.

Some mornings, Hoppy leaves breakfast and drives to his old home instead of his new one in Miami, as if he’s on autopilot.

His house in Picher, the one where he lived for nearly half a century, is tagged with yellow spray paint: TBCD.

To be condemned.

Why is moving just 10 miles away so devastating?

Outside Picher, the mining town’s former residents are branded “lead heads” and “chat rats.” People wonder whether living in the polluted area made them stupid.

Like any downtrodden group, Picher residents once found strength in numbers, in their insulated community.

Now they must find their way in a larger world — a world they don’t fully understand, one that understands them only as the products of a toxic town.

It’s no wonder they seek solace in memories.

* * * * *

From his post in the hallway at Picher’s wake, Hoppy sold $300 worth of books — not enough to cover costs but enough to leave him satisfied.

His night was cut short when the muscles in his chest seized up.

He had two heart attacks in recent weeks, and doctors said the stress was getting to him.

Hoppy’s son told his dad he was “out of gas.” It was time to go.

Hoppy’s family loaded his unsold books back into the bed of his pickup, and the old miner drove down empty streets to a still-unfamiliar home.

He says he moved to Miami “under protest.” But he’s easing to the idea a bit.

“They told me they were gonna move me to Miami,” he joked, “and I said, ‘Over my dead body, you will!’ ”

He continued, changing tone: ” ‘Oh, well,’ I said, ‘I’ve been dead from the waist down now for 10 years anyway.’ ”

He has found purpose by resurrecting Picher’s untold story — at the pool hall, at the reunion and through his books.

He’s not happy about having to leave his home. But he’s no longer the stubborn man who couldn’t dream of the world beyond Picher.

“There’s not any point in thinking about it,” he said, “because there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it — just break out, go someplace else and start all over again.”

The walls in his new living room are still bare. But he has ordered two 6-foot-long murals of Picher, photographs of the town in its heyday.

The mountains of gravel waste were smaller then — and growing. For Hoppy, the photos capture a town on the upswing.

He went to Picher’s wake expecting it to feel like a funeral.

He left with a sense of relief.

And afterward, for the first time in weeks, he slept through the night.

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No Responses to “‘Last man standing’ at wake for a toxic town”

  1. Barbara Swafford Says:

    Hi Linda,

    What a beautiful story. I had tears in my eyes as I read how Hoppy hung onto the memories of Picher.

    It makes me wonder, how many other “Pichers” are out there, abandoned with nothing left but the memories of their residents. Sadly, when they’re gone, it’s like these towns truly die.
    .-= Barbara Swafford´s last blog ..How Writing Catchy Titles May Hurt Our Blog =-.

  2. corrin Says:

    You wonder how Hoppy got so lucky to live to the ripe old age of 84!
    .-= corrin´s last blog ..Green Thumb =-.

  3. Says:

    ‘Last man standing’ at wake for a toxic town | Forced Green…

    I found this on CNN and just had to pass it on. This is what we are talking about why we need to go green….

  4. Barbara Says:

    Hi Linda,

    What a wonderful story. Sounds like Hoppy is finally adjusting to taking some of his memories with him to his new home. Sad to see and know there are many other “Picher’s” out there!
    .-= Barbara´s last blog ..I’ve Been Tagged! =-.

  5. Karen Says:

    I saw this on tv. Is is really sad. Glad he could find a bright spot in a tragic situation.

  6. wilson Says:

    What a sad and sorrowful news, Linda! Hopefully, this kind of incident won’t happen at other places…
    .-= wilson´s last blog ..That Things We should concern about Bone Fracture! =-.

  7. Odette Célibataire Says:

    i can’t even read such a thing!!! how could they do such a thing to people….lead poisoning to kids, houses built on top of old mines.. awful!
    .-= Odette Célibataire´s last blog ..Et le lendemain… =-.

  8. Christina Says:

    Too many towns with the same stories. When will America wake up?
    .-= Christina´s last blog ..My son turns 21 ~ A view from Iraq =-.

  9. yanjiaren Says:

    Yeah I keep seeing every day on the News about one toxic site or another. Makes me really feel so sad inside.
    .-= yanjiaren´s last blog ..Let’s learn Korean: Watching Korean Drama Yi San with 77 Episodes! =-.

  10. psyche Says:

    It reads as a rather ambiguous story to me, even implying the lead has effected people intellects…. : /
    .-= psyche´s last blog ..WTF of the Week =-.

  11. cady Says:

    what a story. i can understand his feelings, but i don’t think i would have wanted to stay there.
    .-= cady´s last blog ..19 Weeks =-.

  12. Rebecca Says:

    And people still indiscriminately pollute, everywhere. Will we ever learn?
    .-= Rebecca´s last blog ..Dr. Anne Scholl-Mealey: Helping the Homeless and Their Pets =-.

  13. Kelcey Evans Says:

    Looking to purchase the books by Orval “Hoppy” Ray, about Picher, Ok.
    My father and grandmother are from there.

    I welcome any information on these books.

    Kelcey Evans

  14. shari Says:

    Hoppy Ray passed away last night. and thanks for all the concern of our town. The people of Picher Oklahoma were like one big family, and had more school spirit than any other town. I as well as my mother and grandparents were raised there. and by talking to anyone from there you would have never guessed that any one raised there had been affected by the lead. i know what they say, but i truly believe that the people that the people taking the governmets money saying that their children were affected are jst money hungry. i know several people that’s children have taken the money and there is nothing wrong with them. i think that they should have left Picher alone. the residents knew about the risks of living there,and were all ok. When they did the buy out, many of the elderly residents just could not handle living somewhere else and have since passed away. They lived somewhere their entire lives, and were forced to leave and within months passed away. the depression of having to start over after they have worked their entire lives to get to where they are/were is just unbearable. so please keep all residents from Picher in your prayers and help them through this time.

  15. Linda Says:

    Hi shari …. I am so sorry to hear about Hoppy Ray. My sympathies go out to his family. It is so true about the elderly having to start over. The residents of Picher are in my prayers! Thank you for letting us know about Hoppy Ray.

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