catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 4 :: 2007.02.23 — 2007.03.09


An elegy for The Beach

The residents immediately recalled that the roads had turned purple after being sprayed. The spraying had resulted in an awful odor. Birds had died and newborn animals succumbed shortly after their birth. One…man told how he had called the St. Louis Health Department to tell them about the dead birds he kept finding. The department recommended that he freeze the dead birds and said they would be out to pick them up. No one ever came.

-from "The Times Beach Story" by Marilyn Leistner


View a short slideshow of the history of Times Beach.


The death of Times Beach, Missouri, haunts me—not that human death is entirely "natural", but this was the euthanasia of a place.  Even those places that come to the point of gasping for air rarely die.  They just hang on, becoming worse or better or staying the same, but nonetheless stubbornly maintaining a pulse.  Times Beach, on the other hand, is a ghost.

I'm tempted to lament its death as preventable, to rail against Russell Bliss for knowingly poisoning a town that at the time of the Vietnam War was still trying to rise out of the ashes of the Depression.  But I also realize that in some sense he may have been the product of an evil spirit, loosed when the spell of commercial gain conjured a town in 1925, summoned to bless the at-best-ambiguous gain of Agent Orange, and undefeatable when the poison started deforming human decency back home in Times Beach.

Marilyn Leistner, the last mayor of Times Beach, writes, "As appearances went the community was not too attractive, but the old timers still speak with nostalgia of the picnics, and the high old times they had way back."  I can't help but wonder if in spite of its origins, Times Beach could have been redeemed—a place where 21st century children, even if they were dirt poor, could have known the love of hardworking parents and played baseball on fields that, even if they weren't all glittering limestone and lush outfields, didn't will them to slow and early deaths.  I wonder if birds could have found sanctuary in backyard birdfeeders without the state park signs to guide them.  I wonder if, even as the residents cursed the swelling river that put their houses back on stilts, they would have witnessed Christ incarnate in the helping hand of a neighbor or the clean-up kit from the Red Cross.

I realize that the foundations of Times Beach may have been poisoned from the beginning when plots of earth became mere marketing tools to secure one more sale. Before the government buy-out to disincorporate Times Beach finally went through: "[The former mayor] slept each night with a gun at his bedside and his very large German Shepherd in his yard…. Reporters refused to enter the town without protective gear…. Children from surrounding, uncontaminated areas were told not to associate with the Times Beach children at school."  In the end, you couldn't pay someone to own a piece of Times Beach.

The government didn't want it, its citizens didn't want it, the Meramec River did its best to consume it. My God, my God, did you really forsake that place?  Or do you hold it gently still in your timeless memory with the same unconditional fondness you promise all of your people?

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