Strike Them Hard, Drag them To Church

Trip Start Jul 20, 2002
Trip End Sep 05, 2002

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Flag of United States  , Pennsylvania
Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Back when I was in college down in Gainesville, my buddy Todd assaulted me one evening with a record by a San Francisco group called Caroliner. The music, for those who would call it music, was fairly well indescribable. Cacophonous noise, wheezing, screeching, distorted vocals, banjos, harmoniums. The closest thing I could think of to compare it to was that it was the horrifying aural equivalent of a Southern Gothic painting of a bloody little girl standing in a dead field holding one of those creepy dolls missing an eye and some hair and probably a leg, and with scorch marks and streaks of mud on its face.
Leaving Centralia, we caught sight of something that looked to be straight out of a Caroliner record.
"Dear God," was all she could say as they ground the parking lot gravel beneath the wheels of the Jeep.
We'd seen the sign, in the official "hand stitched" font all places with names like that use, when they pulled off the interstate at the exit that lead to Centralia, and we pegged it as the proper place to get a bite to eat. Low, guttural thunder rolled across the mountains like the distant jungle war drums turn-of-the-century British explorers were always hearing. The gods of travel were angry with them for betraying the interstate rule the first day out. Gray clouds rushed across the horizon, dark bruises against the sickly pale of the sky. They were all business, these clouds; no lollygagging about with nothing better to do than obscure the sun and leak out a piddling little drizzle of rain. These clouds were tearing across the mountaintops like Johnny Cash's ghost riders, hell-bent on delivering fast and furious violence to Appalachia. And standing against that brooding, tumultuous sky was the single most hideous mascot statue I had ever seen and ever hoped to see.
Taken at face value, it was supposed to be an elderly woman in a pioneer bonnet and apron, offering up an undoubtedly delicious home-baked pie while her young daughter or grand-daughter -- it was hard to tell the larger woman's age, what with how that rugged coal-mining life ages you rapidly -- clings to her leg and holds a doll. But taken at face value, the problem was the face. Grandma was simply creepy, the sort of face you'd expect from some old woman who sits in the shadows, quoting the Bible in a quivering, sandpaper voice while her crazed inbred son sneaks up behind you with an axe or a chainsaw, intent on tenderizing you up real nice for dinner later that evening and stringing your hide up in his shed. The eyes were painted in a far-too-brilliant blue set against far-too brilliant white. I was convinced that if you could draw a line of sight emanating from those eyes, it would stretch clear across the globe and somehow, miraculously, be staring directly into the eyes of one of those Moai statues on Easter Island. Let Erich Von Daniken ruminate on that one for a spell.
But it was the daughter/granddaughter, clad in an identical apron and seafoam green dress, that sent us scrambling for the camera. Whoever erected these fiberglass monstrosities had apparently run out of little girl heads, so in its place they affixed the head of a full-grown adult male, square-jawed and desperate looking with the same far-seeing eyes and no attempt to pass it off as anything but a male head. It was nearly as big as the rest of the body, and the doll that dangled lifelessly from one hand was yet another dress-and-apron combo, only with no head at all. Just a hollow stump of a neck. I couldn't help but think of the nightmarish sort of life the giant-male-headed girl with her decapitated dolly must lead in her cannibal grandmother's Appalachia shack.
"Get a load of that nightmare fuel," I said as they parked next to the statue, the ten-foot-tall little "girl" staring at them from her concrete perch, as if she/he was begging for some sort of help, some salvation that would deliver him/her from this insane giant of an old woman that forced the tiny man to dress up in pioneer girl clothing. "I wonder what's on the menu. Skinned cats and naughty little boys who don't eat their vegetables?"
"Don't look at me," Ellie said, though whether it was to him or the man-girl, I couldn't quite tell. "I was happy with Long John Silver, but we have our rules."
Our rules, the rules I'd set forth the night before we left, were simple. No chain restaurants. No interstates. No chain hotels. Not unless there was absolutely no other choice.
"Yeah, but if we walk in and that's waiting on us," I said as I gestured toward the towering Grandma, "I think we'll try the next town."
"Why do you think she makes her son dress like a girl?"
"Is that what's going on?" I remarked. "You know, I read that at night this thing comes to life and prowls the foggy, abandoned streets of Centralia, looking for thrill-seekers who would make nice meat pie filling, while the little man-girl trills, 'Where's my dolly's head?'"
A blinding flash of lightning ripped through the sky at that precise moment, accompanied by an ear-splitting crack as it struck the forested slope of one of the mountains in the distance, sending an explosion of light and smoke hurtling into the sky.
"You're making momma angry," Ellie said. "So clam it, and let's go eat some possum and grits."
Caroliner's "Strike them Hard, Drag them to Church" was on my mind the rest of the night. I did not sleep well.
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