Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Danger of Living

If a man had a bit of luck it was best not to flaunt it before his neighbors in the Patch. Jake Yeager thought his father should have remembered. And it was because he apparently had not that Jake felt like a trespasser as they cut through Winchester No. 1 Patch.

The Patch was two long rows of ramshackle sun-bleached shacks on a hard-scrabble flat without a tree to shade it from the merciless sun, bisected by the state highway, a dirt track up to the mine and the dolly line that crossed one corner. The shaft passed under the village and sometimes in the still of the day or at night when the charges were fired crockery rattled in the cupboards or a window shook as a reminder to the men and their families that they and every building, including the store and the church and every other blessed thing in the place was the property of the Ragers and their mine. There was a Winchester No. 2 Patch farther up the line but the only affinity between the two was the same kind of people lived in both and all of them were the property of W. K. Rager and Sons, Inc.

It was mid-morning now and the men were either at work or sleeping after their shift. But there were women and children they knew out in front of the houses. Jake lowered his eyes and pretended not to notice them. His father, though, he loudly called out greetings and waved, calling attention on their passage. It was four months since his father had quit the mine and they’d left the Patch. Memories were long here and his father should have remembered. Yet, here he was, acting as though nothing had changed, oblivious to any thought these people might be envious and resent his coming through to remind them of his stroke of luck.

Jake wanted to berate his father, but he was only a boy of twelve and so he kept his mouth shut, held his eyes to the ground, churned with embarrassment and focused his anger on Uncle Dan who was the cause of it.

Usually they took another route to the hole. It was a mile shorter going through the Patch, and they came this way in deference to Uncle Dan who was frail from ill health and a sedentary lifestyle.

Uncle Dan was Jake’s grandfather’s brother. Born in the region, he’d escaped early in his teens to the Army without ever having worked a day in the mines. He’d come back since only on rare visits. It was hard to believe of a man born in the region, but here was one who’d never heard of a coal-hole. And that was the purpose of their jaunt this morning. Jake’s father had promised last night to show his uncle how he earned his living.

Uncle Dan shuffled along beside them, stoop-shouldered, snuffling from exertion, the summer heat and the dust raised by their boots, his eyes skittering back and forth like water-bugs on a pond. “Great God,” he said, finally, “here it is 1949 in the grandest country in the world and this looks like feudal Europe. How can they live like this?”
Jake’s father snorted. “Haint that they want to. Going to work in the dark, coming back in the dark, living like this. You think they like it?”
“You forget, boy, I was born in one of those shacks. I know all about it. I didn’t want no part of it. I got out. Why don’t they?”

“You was lucky.”

“How about you?”

“I was lucky. I got out, and I’m gonna stay out. But it haint easy. Rager keeps a tight squeeze on things. He hires a lot of immigrants who barely speak the language and don’t know the law. The rest are just plain poor and uneducated. He keeps them in debt and he makes sure everybody knows they can’t walk away from here unless their debts are paid first.”

“So, how’d you manage it?”



“Yep. Poker gave me a stake. We play every Friday night down at the firehall. I had a run of luck and I put my winnings aside and scrimped and scraped until I had my debts pared down.”

“But you must have had some idea what you were going to do when you left the mine.”

“Sure did. Purely by accident, Ed Dobson and me found out Rager didn’t have a hold on Turkey Ridge. Pretending we was hunting, we went up every day for a week between shifts and sunk a shaft. We didn’t go too deep before we struck coal. So we grabbed a lease on it and got a couple businessmen in Shannon to stake us to equipment.”

“So what you call ‘working a coal-hole’ is just a matter of digging the coal out of the ground on your own?”

Jake’s father laughed. “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. But you got the basic idea. It’s a darn good hole, producing about six tons a day of good hard anthracite. It’s a hard one to work, though. The shaft is almost perpendicular. We work it by sending two men down the pit to grub out the coal and load it in burlap sacks, which the third man hauls up to the top with a winch. The top man loads the coal in a wheelbarrow and takes it down the hill to where our pickup is parked.”

“What do you do with the coal? Sell it to Rager?”

“Nah, he won’t buy from us and the other breakers don’t want to offend him. We sell some to folks in Shannon. Most of it we truck down-river to other towns and sell door-to-door. No trouble getting rid of it. We’re not getting rich. But we make a living and we’re independent. That means something after all those years with Rager on our backs.”
They sauntered along, crossing the stone bridge over the acid-wracked creek circling the Patch and started up the trail to Turkey Ridge. There were trees here—scrub oaks, poplar and elders mostly—and the air smelled cleaner now that they were above the Patch and Jake felt better. He picked up his pace, going ahead of the two men, stopping now and again to skip a stone into the trees as grouse took flight or a squirrel chattered a warning. Catbirds mewed along the track and a pair of hawks coasted across blue sky overhead.

Winded, Jake sat down on a conglomerate boulder to wait for his father and Uncle Dan. The anger had left him. He felt good up here. He wasn’t entirely certain what his father meant by independent but he sensed it must be something similar to what he felt up here, clean and free, above the muck that lay below.

They were only a stone’s throw from the hole when Jake’s father suddenly stopped and stood, listening. “What’s the matter?” Uncle Dan asked. “Shh,’ Jake’s father said, still listening. Then he took off at a run for the hole. Jake and Uncle Dan followed, the old man still demanding, “What’s the matter?”

Jake was puzzled at first, too. Then he realized what was missing. Instead of the normal, steady chug-chug of the pump there was only silence. Jake knew, but he was afraid to put it in words.

As they reached the top and broke through the scrub oak they saw Jake’s father talking to Sam Troutman, one of his partners, and a couple of shovel operators who worked for the D&Z Company that was stripping on the other side of the bluff.

“Sam called me over ‘soons it happened,” Jim Dietz, one of the operators, was saying as they came up. “We was just figgerin’ what to do.”

“What’s happened?” Uncle Dan asked again.

“Cave-in. Bill and Ed are down there.”

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

Jake’s head spun and he stumbled against Uncle Dan. Men were always getting caught in cave-ins, but it wasn’t supposed to happen to people you knew. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. Only the year before one of their neighbors had been trapped. Jake remembered what Cally Ryan looked like when they dug him out. It was something the boy would never forget. Cally’s eyes had been open and full of coal dirt. His mouth had been open, too, as though he died screaming for help. The face was black from the coal, except for two white stripes down Cally’s cheeks where tears from his hurt eyes had washed him clean. Jake didn’t want to see his brother Bill like that. “Can we get them out?” he asked in a tremulous voice.

“We’re gonna try, sure as hell,” his father said, putting an arm around the boy’s trembling shoulders.

“How’d it happen?” Uncle Dan asked.

“We was just gonna quit for lunch,” Sam said. “I’d come up on top to check the winch. Ed said he wanted to place one more charge before they came up. Bill stayed with him. I heard the blast and didn’t pay it no mind till I noticed the pump had stopped. When I climbed down I saw the whole side of the slope had fallen. I don’t know whether the charge was too heavy or if it just went off too quick. It must have knocked out half the timbers on that side.”

Jake’s father was trembling now, too. He paced around the hole, trying to hide his agitation. But they could see it in his blanched face and the sweat glistening on his brow. Then, recovering his composure, he came back to them and took charge. He’d been around mines and mining for thirty of his forty-two years, starting as a slate-picker at the D&Z Colliery. He knew what had to be done.

“We’ve only opened one slope off the gangway,” he said. “If Bill and Ed got far enough back in that slope when the blast went off, they’ll be all right. If they didn’t, there’s no need to hurry. We’ll have to dig them out the same way we mine the coal. Jim, I’d appreciate if you’d go down with Sam and start the digging. I’ll see if I can get the pump to working.”

Jake knew how important it was to get the pump restarted. There’s always seepage in a coal hole. If the pump stopped for even an hour, a foot of water could collect in the bottom of the shaft. That wasn’t much, but if a man were pinned down under a rock or a timber he could drown in less water than that.

“You’d best go down and tell your Mom and Bill and Ed’s wives and see if more help can be rounded up,” Jake’s father told him.

“Let me do it,” put in Uncle Dan. “I think I can break the news better than the kid.”

Jake was grateful. He wanted to stay and help. He ran for tools and helped the other shovel operator dump bags from the winch so they could be sent back down for more dirt.

After a while, his father got the pump started. Then he found the hose was burst. The pump was useless. Jake struggled to hold back his tears. If water was coming in… but no; he couldn’t think of that. He had to focus on the work, fight to drive away the image of Cally’s face that danced before his eyes.

Time passed and Uncle Dan came back with the women. Like gas in a mine, word of the accident had drifted from Shannon to the patch. Concerned neighbors and friends, women and miners between shifts, some who were just curious, came up the hill. The miners pitched into the work. The women and men who weren’t miners stood around in nervous little groups, murmuring, white-faced, wanting to help, not knowing how.
Jake’s father sent him to join his mother and the spectators. His father said he knew Jake wanted to help but he could do it best by comforting his mother. Jake was hurt and ashamed. His father saw he was too distressed to be of help and was right in sending him to the sidelines. The boy stood by his mother, shivering, seeing Cally’s dead face.

Dark clouds scudded across the sun. A cold wind rippled like water through the leaves of the oak, which chattered as though in anguish.
The digging and the hauling and the hoping went on for hours. It was dark now. Some of the curious drifted away and were replaced by others. The minister and a priest who had been called for Ed came. The two men of God conferred, set aside their differences, then took charge of the little flock of spectators, offering words of faith and urging prayer. Someone started a hymn and others joined in, the words echoing over the mountains.

A rain began, a hard pelting rain that made the ground slippery under foot. Instead of Cally, now Jake saw his brother lying on his face with a prop holding him down and the water rising up around his nostrils. Jake cried and started praying, making wild promises to God.

Then.. what was that? What did that guy say?

“We’ve got ‘em. We’ve got ‘em out!”

Jake looked up just in time to see one dark form lifted from the shaft before the crowd rushed in around the hole and blocked his view. “Thank God. Oh, thank God,” his mother cried beside him.

“If you won’t do it for yourself, then do it for your family,” Uncle Dan was saying the next morning when Jake came down for breakfast.

Jake’s father stared into his coffee cup, took a sip, sat down the cup and spoke. “Doc Whalen says they’ll be fine. Shock and a few scratches, but with a little rest they’re gonna be all right.” His father looked tired, but not any more than after a normal work day.

“Pure luck,” Uncle Dan said. “I’ve been away too long. I’d forgotten how dangerous mining is. You’ve gotta get out of it.”

“Sure it’s dangerous, but it’s a job and somebody has to do it,” Jake’s father told him. “Me, I count myself lucky to have got away from Rager and into my own hole. I been at it too long to quit—even if I wanted to. Bill, he’s a good miner. He’ll be back in the hole in a couple days. As for that one,” he continued, pointing a finger at Jake, “he won’t be mining. He’s a bright one and he’ll be off to school and then into some other kind of work. But, wherever he goes, whatever he does, he’ll find there’s danger of one sort or another.”
“Yeah, but not like in mining,” Uncle Dan said. “For God’s sake, Joe, get your boys out of this coal country. You almost lost a son yesterday. If I can’t convince you, that should.”

“It only convinces me there’s danger in living. Danger’s a part of life. We saw one kind yesterday. You saw another last spring when you found out you had TB. Your safe job in the auto plant didn’t keep you from getting sick, did it?”

“That’s not the same thing and you know it. Don’t make excuses that won’t hold water. Get your boys out of here.”

Jake’s father took his empty cup to the sink. Then he went out the screen door onto the porch. He was done talking.

(This story originally appeared in the January 2004 edition of a little mag called Cold Glass)

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