The Cement City

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

In 1938, people knew about Concrete, Washington, if only for a few days. On Halloween Eve, 1938, listeners throughout the town tuned in to hear Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Like more than a million others, Concrete’s listeners fell for the broadcast’s realism. They heard not a radio play, but convincing news reports of a real-time Martian invasion.

Tripod war machines land on Earth and destroy bridges, railroads, power stations. The New Jersey militia fights back in vain, millions of refugees clog the roads, and the Martians advance on New York City.

Then, in Concrete, Washington, the lights go out. Radios silence, phones go dead. The town panics. Some families flee to the mountains, others rush to guard their moonshine stills. People fill the streets, ready to shoot the aliens and defend the town. Meanwhile, those who missed the broadcast stare out their windows, dumbfounded

After the initial hysteria faded, the town learned that their electrical sub-station had short-circuited, and its citizens slunk back inside, relieved, embarrassed, and furious at Orson Welles. News of the mistake spread internationally, and for a few days of laughter, people knew about Concrete.

Old cement silos from Portland Superior Cement Company
Old cement silos from Portland Superior Cement Company

When I passed through it, though, the town had returned to obscurity. With a population of 700, it had shrunk from its former–although still limited–glory. At the time of the War of the Worlds broadcast, Concrete housed 1,000 people and the Superior Portland Cement Company plant. Once known as “Cement City,” the town still shows those days of prosperity; locals will point to the old cement silos and tell you about the abandoned industry.

Now, however, residents who can’t find jobs in education or service must commute to a not-so-nearby city. Or, as many in Concrete do, turn to meth. The drug is cheap and easy to find. It staves off hopelessness, at least at first, and it keeps people entertained in a place where “there isn’t much to do.”

On my way out of Concrete, my driver, Sue, pointed to decrepit homes visible from the highway. Rotting porches, moss-covered roofs, broken windows. Some of them are meth labs, others are abandoned completely. “If you go in there,” Sue said, “all you’ll see are beetles and maybe a dirty mattress with a big blood stain.” It reminded me of a rural version of Detroit.

But a few houses, she said, are still technically homes. Devoted to their drug, meth users along Highway 20 live in buildings that are not merely broken, but toxic. The problem is cyclical. “You’ve got these tweaker parents,” Sue explained, “and their kids grow up in broken homes. They’ve got no one to say no, no job prospects. They end up just doing the same thing.” Concrete High School a four-year school, enrolls more than 220 students from the surrounding area. This year, Sue said, just 32 students graduated.

Cascade Burger, a '50s-style diner just off Highway 20
Cascade Burger, a ’50s-style diner just off Highway 20

I spent my first night in Concrete, before I learned the extent of the town’s problems. I ate at Cascade Burger and heard about the classic car night and Saturday farmer’s market. The girls working there told me about the old-fashioned movie theater, museum, and drive-under school, and they suggested a good place to pitch my tent where no one would find me. They told me drugs were a problem, but their complaints focused on Concrete’s boringness. Fortunately, the night passed without incident.

But the next morning, a woman walking her dog warned me that hitchhikers have vanished around Concrete. “Just disappeared,” she said. “And they were older and bigger than you.”

The next person I encountered was Sue. A small, blonde girl about my age, she pulled over and introduced herself: “I’m kind of a hippie. I like to help people.” Sue wore a long-sleeved camo top and kept her hair in a ponytail. Her car, well-used at best, had a problematic brake pedal, so she used her parking brake instead. Her baby rode in a car seat up front, quietly sucking on a bottle beneath a mound of blankets.

Sue picks up hitchhikers despite her only experience thumbing: when she was sixteen, she decided to hitch a ride while walking home drunk from a party. She found one around 2 am. After she got in and the truck hit 35 mph, her driver turned to her. “You’ll have to pay for this ride. And I don’t take cash.” Sue jumped from the vehicle and ran.

She and her husband hope to leave Concrete eventually, but for now, cheap housing and family ties keep them there. Her parents, a welder and a nurse, still live in town, along with her younger sister, an honor roll student who found a place in a local church. She has friends in the area, too, although very few from her high school days.

Sue showed me a campsite where I could stay with her friend John if I failed to find another ride that day. John is brain damaged and paralyzed on the left side, the fault of a drunk driver and an evening walk. “Stay off the roads on the weekends,” Sue said. “Just about everyone here drinks and drives. I’m serious–it gets dark, you find a place to stay the night.”

Sue has no love for what she calls “Redneckville.” In one particularly meth-ridden stretch of Highway 20, she said she rarely drives this part without her husband, a high-rise construction worker who commutes to Seattle. “I’m too small to go around here,” she said simply.

Concrete has come a long way from panicked families rushing to fight Martian invaders. I might laugh at its history, but when I think of the broken families that produce more meth addicts than graduates, and when I think of Sue, the hippie trapped in a town she does not trust, I’m much more inclined to cry.

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