Monday, November 20, 2006

Daddy's Coal Lessons

I am a coal miner’s daughter. Like Loretta Lynn, I started my life in the sooty shadow of a coalmine. I lived farther up river from Loretta’s Carolina home. It was at the northern head of the Appalachian Mountains in the Shenandoah River Valley where my parents spawned my sister and me.

An aunt tells me there were three of us but my mother refuses or forgets to acknowledge the loss of an infant boy before me. I am the oldest by succession then.

Daddy met mama at the Sweethearts Skating Rink on East Broadway when he was stationed at Macdill Air Force Base in Florida during the War. He married her two weeks later in the frenzy of joy and enthusiasm that often follows conflict once the Germans were defeated. Sweethearts is on the east side of Tampa, but we always called our part of town Six Mile Creek.

Mama was skate instructor and official peacekeeper for Uncle Benny, the affable Italian who owned the rink. It didn’t have anything to do with kung fu. She was simply fearless. She would tackle anything and anybody. Mama went after the bullies with her mouth and the toughs with an RC Cola bottle. Both got results. Like the rest of the women in my bloodline, I have inherited this mouth and arm response when the thugs in the world beset me.

I often imagine my parents meeting each other for the first time. I see pictures of them as they looked then. They were beauties. Mama smiles at the camera looking like a young Ava Gardner. My dad looks like a dark and rakish Clark Gable. His teeth glisten from under the stylish moustache he was to keep all of his life. They were movie star handsome.

Mama swears I was conceived on Southern soil, but they moved back to daddy’s home town in Pennsylvania after the war so he could go back to work in the mines. The post-war boom was slow to start up in our part of Florida. When we moved back to Florida, he became a fisherman. But that’s another story. There was water for daddy to fish in Pennsylvania, too.

We lived right on the banks of the Monongahela River in Fredericktown. I watched the paddle wheelers pushing the groaning barges loaded with coal and riding low in the water up river. They hauled them down river empty and spent. The paddle wheelers looked like giant mechanized toys. You know those ducks where the wooden feet go round and round as you pull it along on a string? They were like that except they shalooshed instead of quacked. I can hear the sound of the big wheels sluicing the water even now if I shut my eyes. It echoed off of the hills across from our house.

I dragged a big metal tub to the steps leading to the water once. My sister Lynda and I wanted to float out to the paddle wheelers to get a closer look. Mama caught us so we didn’t get to go out very far.

We lived in a two story duplex with a basement built into a hill on our side of the river. The Bartoshes owned it. They were the Ukrainian family who lived in one half of the house. They rented us the other half.

I see very little color in these memories. They are sepia-toned photos and grainy black and white home movies someone has taken colored pencils to in my mind. You know the ones where everyone’s lips are the color of brandied cherries no matter how pale their skin is? The color is never quite right.

My mother labored with me for sixty hours. It was touch and go. I fought her insistence I be born by kicking and pushing back at every contraction. Mama often reminded me of how horrible her labor was with me so I should be grateful. My punishment is these skinny arms and legs that refuse to put on much weight no matter how much the rest of me gains. The excess clings in odd clumps and packages of flesh wherever they can. It looks like they’re forever threatening to fall off as I bounce over the rough roads of life.

My other birthmark is a spine that is crooked and misshapen. It is curled in upon itself as if wishing to hide in the fetal position of my womb self. My spine is shaped like a sideways question mark; the ess of a burrowing snake trying always to twist away from the rigors of life and asking major questions as it goes. My spine gives me good posture by default. I stand sort of defiant, militant. My chest leads. My head and shoulders are ramrod straight and squared, my face pointed straight on and chin up to the world.

Daddy’s spine was like that. He must have fought his birth, too. His body reflected his Siberian ancestry by remaining true to the ground. His spine was only slightly more crooked than mine. He didn’t blame it on his birth fight. He said it was from the Great Depression days of digging through the garbage behind the A & P in Fredericktown when he was a kid.

The neighborhood children would go back there to find the edible parts of the fruit heir parents couldn’t afford on coal wages. The market casually threw away the fruit that sat rotten in the bins rather than lower their prices to the miners’ families. Don’t let politicians fool you. This is what they really mean by ‘market economy’.

Daddy’s crooked spine could also have come from bending over to climb the steep Pennsylvania hillsides in search of wild garlic. His mother would crush and rub the cloves on lard she spread their homemade bread with. It gives the grease some flavor. Her folklore told her it would keep her children from getting worms. It suppose it worked because my Dad never looked wormy.

Daddy also bent down when he looked along the railroad tracks for anthracite coal. Anthracite coal is better for heating than the softer bituminous coal. Both were formed in peat bogs like the Dismal Swamp that doesn’t pay any attention to state lines and government jurisdictions. The Dismal straddles Virginia and South Carolina.

Mud and sand and mountains fell over the peat bogs way back in the Devonian and Carboniferous ages. That slowly put the squeeze to the partly decomposed peat, which converted it to combustible coal. The mud and sand became shale and sandstone.

The mountains remained for the miners to have something to dig down through to get to the coal. Anthracite coal has most of the impurities driven out so it burns better after you manage to get it lit. Some of the choice chunks fell off the trains that hauled the coal cars to and from the mines.

My dad and all my uncles and aunts would scour the railroad berm for lumps of coal to heat their row house with. It doesn’t make sense. The miners back then often didn’t have the money to buy enough coal to stay warm with even though they were the ones who dug it out of the ground with a pick and shovel in the first place.

Maybe the bend in his spine was because daddy lied about his age and went into the mines to work beside his pap when he was fourteen and his bones where still trying to grow. Miners forever duck their heads even when they’re not down in the Hole. It’s a learned response to keep from being beaned on the low ceilings of the rooms they gouge in the coal. This is their penitence for digging around in the body of the Earth like boys going through their mother’s pockets looking for loose change.

Daddy showed me their peculiar bobbing and hunched over walk. It took him a long time to straighten up when he walked, but his shoulders humbled over whenever he forgot to pay attention to his step.

The miners have to dig because there are bigger boys who own the mines. Those Owner Boys never have to dig the coal out themselves. They demand the black treasure from the Earth they lay claim on. It is blasted out of the synclines where the miners work miles below the Earth’s surface and the sun. The Owner Boys will trade the coal dug out for them by others for coins and bills. The coins and bills will carry the Owner Boys far, far away from the hills they strip bare and scatter with their middens of overburden and inferior lignite coal and pollution to the streams and groundwater around the mines where the miners live.

So the Eath beans the heads of the miners they hire for low wages because they are the ones most handy to Her touch. She’ll squash them like ants on occasion when She’s really had enough of the gouging. Daddy told me that this usually happens when the miners are back-mining the supporting columns of the rooms they’ve stripped of coal.

Now. THERE is a swat for you! Coal dust blowing everywhere as the Earth’s body collapses over the miner’s heads to mash them flat in their boring tunnels. Since the mine shafts are so deep beneath the surface of the ground, you can feel the shake and hear the rumble for a long time before coal dust blows out of the mine entry like a whale blowing water as it surfaces. The dust is the backdrop for the vigil kept at the mine entrance by the families of unaccounted for miners until they’re found alive. Or otherwise.

The Owner Boys never show up at these vigils. It’s just a glitch in the flow of money from the coal for them - an inconvenience in the production schedule that will mean a few less stock purchases and a bottle less of champagne for the day or until the insurance pays off. Usually, there is some Suit who acts as the public face of the Owner Boys standing in front of the reporters and radio mikes trying to convince the public that theirs was a safe mine and all precautions are always taken. Times haven't changed much.

I remember daddy coming off shift from the mines. He was totally black except for his teeth and the whites of his eyes. Daddy was dark skinned to begin with. Not the rich coffee and tea of Africa, but the swarthy, dark ocher and olive of Siberian stock.

My sister inherited his straight blue-black hair and black eyes with their picanthropic fold. It gave them an odd, Oriental look. Lynn was dark skinned too, but the admix of one or another of my mother’s more colorful relatives blended the best of all worlds on her palette. I guess coal was in daddy’s blood since anthropologists have found evidence of ancient coal mining operations where his ancestors hailed from. Maybe the coal helped stain the skin of his people dark in that part of the world.

I inherited my mama’s sea green and turquoise eyes and just enough of her auburn highlights to keep my thin hair from being a nondescript mousy brown. I have olive skin. Not olive enough to look truly exotic even though I am euphemistically called 'Eurasian.' I’m neither East nor West but stuck somewhere in between like avacado in a sandwich. My coloring makes me look like the outside of a hard-boiled egg yolk when the white comes away with the shell. You can really tell it when I dare to wear yellow.

I’ve taken to fading as I age like an old rose that’s kept around in water too long. I see pictures of me in the seventh grade class of Ben Franklin Junior High, Section Seven. I’m the dark little being who would look more at home on the streets of Bangalore instead of the Six Mile Creek girl I am. I was the darkest one in my seventh grade class, but not as dark as daddy.

One time daddy came home after sunset while I was at the window waiting for him. I could see him walking down the lane, a darker shadow in the gloom swinging his lunch pail. He saw me looking at him through the window and grinned at me. The effect was not unlike the Cheshire Cat that appeared in the Wonderland tree above Alice’s head. Maybe mama anticipated this scene when she gave me my middle name. I’m called Alice, too.

I could also smell the coal dust on daddy when he came home from the mines. I wanted to hug him. He made me wait until he’d had a bath. The coal on daddy smelled like rock and earth and something a step down from sulphur. Kind of like when the teacher used to put your nose on the chalkboard ring when you were a bad kid in school.

I always got my nose in the chalk-drawn ring because I was a daydreamer. I didn’t mean to. I just forgot and got caught because I couldn’t help myself from following the stories that would just appear in my head. The teacher said it was daydreaming and daydreaming was NOT allowed for little girls in grade school. So the teacher drew a circle high up on the blackboard so I had to stand on my toes to reach it and stretch to put my nose in the circle. That’s how I know that the blackboard smells like. Daddy told me that the blackboard is slate and slate is a close step to coal.

Daddy earned good money working in the mines. The Almanac says these were boom years after World War II and a good miner could take home good wages for the day. Daddy was the best. He could easily load several boxcars of coal with just a pick and shovel and a mule. He held the record of loads at Bailey Mine for a long time.

Daddy bought one of the hard to come by post war cars that were rationed out with some of his mine money. There’s a picture of toddler me standing at the back bumper of a shiny new, coal black 1950 Oldsmobile squinting up through the sunlight at the camera. I’m squinting because the directions on the Kodak Brownie camera said the subject should always face into the sun. There’s another one of me in the same pose at the bumper of an old Model “A” Ford. I don’t know if coal money bought that but it was my mama’s car. I remember waking up once in the back seat of the old Model “A” with mama and Aunt Betsy singing, ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window’ as they drove into the night. I added the dog’s part and they laughed.

My other dog story concerns Baba Bartoshes’ dog, Lady. Remember, the Bartoshes owned the duplex we lived in? I used to love to pet Lady’s soft, gray muzzle and long ears. She was always so slow and gentle with me and wagged her tail when I would pop around the corner squealing with delight when I saw her. One morning when I was three or four, Daddy put Lady in the back seat of the shiny new Oldsmobile for Baba. Baba cried as she shut the door and went back inside her part of the house. Lady just lay there with her head down on the seat. We drove out to the country with her and stopped at this shallow stream where it ran over some rocks. Lady used to come with us to wash the cars out there sometimes and she loved splashing in the water and chasing the drops.

Daddy carried Lady out and laid her next to the stream because she wouldn’t walk. She looked very sleepy. Daddy sat next to her talking to her and petting her ears and head like I did. He even sang this lullaby to her in his deep voice.

Go to sleep, Lady girl,
There are angels around you,
Go to sleep, Lady girl,
You’ve been a good friend, too.

I thought that was real nice the way he made the words for Lady. I played by the stream with the rocks. We left a long time later without Lady. I asked daddy why we were leaving her and he said because she was very, very tired and had to go to sleep. She must have been really sleepy because she didn’t jump up or even move when we got her out of the car like she usually did when she saw me and was all wiggles.

When I got a little older, I remembered daddy singing to Lady. I thought that he had sung her into the long sleep. It is natural for me to think that the woods are some place you go when you are very tired and need a long sleep yourself.

I have other memories of Fredericktown. I remember winning a silver dollar for my Little Red Riding Hood costume one Halloween. My sister was a clown and she won a silver dollar, too. Mama made our costumes. My love of thread comes from her. I used to sled down the hill by the Moose Hall. One time, Ina Rae and I danced the polka. Everyone cleared the floor. They thought we were cute but I got really self-conscious because I just wanted to dance the Polka with Ina Rae.

My grandmother bought a clown doll for my third birthday. I wouldn’t pick it up and love it because she wouldn’t let me touch the beautiful Victorian doll she had on her bed that was all green and blue satin. She must not have thought much of the clown doll because she tossed it to me from across the kitchen when she came in. I couldn’t catch it and it landed on the floor. I guess I didn’t think much of it either after that because I went back to toting around my ratty little rag dog mama made me while the clown doll stayed on my bed. Mama said Grandma Kerik didn’t know how to give things to people because she had grown up hard and had to help raise her eight brothers and sisters and didn’t have time to learn such things as tenderness.

I was in the hospital once for malnutrition or pneumonia – I don’t know which is fact. The room was green and the bed was made out of iron. My dad was not there.

My parents won the first television set in Fredericktown at a raffle. The screen was round and it didn’t have color. I talked to the television screen when Howdy Doody asked which toothpaste us kids used. I thought that he lived in the back of the television set.

I also remember eating green grapes that made me sick from the coal shed next to the driveway and red cherries from the tree out front by the river. They were sweet until you got to the pit. Then they were a little tart. I have good memories of the little log cabin daddy built us to play in. He cut the logs from the forest along the river and dragged them home one by one until he had enough. He put a swing in the tree for us, too. Most of all, I remember how hard daddy worked.

My grand pap taught daddy about the ways of the mines. He called my dad ‘Yonco’ even though daddy’s name was really John. Pap would ‘blow the hole’ like a crazy man. Preparations were always the same.

Daddy and pap would bore a hole into the coal vein and then they would tamp dynamite sticks down in there. Pap attached the fuse and sent daddy back down the tunnel to wait. Instead of regulation lengths of the gunpowder-permeated line, pap gave new meaning to the term “short fuse”. He lit the fuse and ran like hell laughing like a madman back to where daddy waited. Pap always timed it so the concussion wave lifted him and threw him flying out in front of the blast. Most of the time, he would land at daddy’s feet. I guess he missed the excitement of bear baiting, riding horses, and fleeing the Pogrom in Russia and needed the edge of danger to make him feel alive in the darkness and monotony of the mines.

I once heard daddy say that the only time that his pap showed him affection was when he was drunk on vodka. Since this was also the time that pap chose to belt them around, daddy, his brothers and sisters, and my grandmother had to lay low until they saw which way the wind was blowing.

Papa took a bottle of homemade vodka in his lunch pail to wash down the hard bread and meat he and daddy brought for lunch. The doctors told him he’d have to give up the hand rolled cigarettes with Turkish tobacco he favored and the daily bottle of vodka if he wanted to best the black lung and live a long life. Pap said, “The hell with you!” and kept drinking his vodka. He lived until he was nine-two. I guess he was willing to give up the long life for some quality time.

When pap made his own vodka down in their basement, he flavored it with cherry pits or fennel seeds. He also baked his own bread. Both my parents have passed that catechism of diverse talents on to me, a ‘Renaissance Woman’ as a white haired storyteller once called me.

Daddy could tell a good story. He told me about his sister, Lara who was born with a veil of embryonic skin over her face. According to daddy’s people, that gave her the gift of seeing the future. She foretold her own death under the wheels of a hit-and-run driver when she was a tender six years old. Daddy told me of being sent to find her with his brothers and discovering her crumpled body and little wagon on the railroad tracks below the road. He would find himself laying on the same tracks for two days in a twilight sleep after being hit by a car close to the same spot where they found Lara. They put a steel plate in Daddy’s head. He was forever sensitive to the heat of the sun on it after that. His sister was beyond steel patches and help when they found her along the tracks lying like the coal they scavenged for to heat their house.

I guess kids were expendable then because the two men who hit daddy and his sister had something or other to do with Owner Boys mine management and weren’t any help with the hospital or the undertaker.

I also think the plate in daddy’s head helped him tell me such good stories. It was hot in the mines because it was deep in the earth. But at least the sun wasn’t shining on the top of his head to distract him so he could remember what he heard and saw.

Daddy worked the mines until he was sixteen. He lied about his age again and joined the C.C.C. Camps set up by President Roosevelt under the New Deal. The conservation camps were set up to deliver some relief to poor people in the way of jobs and to keep groups of hungry young men from attacking and eating the wealthy and the government. They built dams and cleared brush from the roads for room and board and a small wage.

At the Company Store, things did not come cheap even though the mine wages were, so all daddy’s brothers and sisters had to contribute in some way. Daddy gave his mine check and C.C.C. wages to grandma Kerik to feed his brothers and sisters so they never went looking for politicians to eat.

Daddy explained to me the difference between anthracite and lignite coal. And I loved hearing about pap and the dynamite. I even liked the stories about the company row houses that he grew up in that were covered with tarpaper that blistered in the summer heat. Most of all, I liked daddy’s rich, baritone voice that he sang Lady into the long sleep with. He taught me another song he learned from the other miners. He said they would sing it while they worked the coal down in the mines.

Come all you young fellas
So young and so fine
And seek not you fortune
Way down in the mines.

It will form as a habit
And seep in you soul,
‘Til the streams of your blood are,
As black as the coal.

For it’s dark as a dungeon
And damp as the dew,
Where the dangers are doubled,
And the pleasures are few.

Where the rain never falls
And the sun never shines,
It’s dark as a dungeon
Way down in the mines.

When my life it is spent and the ages shall roll
My body will blacken and turn into coal
When I look from the doors of my heavenly home,
I’ll pity the miner that’s digging my bones.

Daddy died in 1984, his mustache still as dapper as it had been as when he was a young man. He’s forming coal of his own.

Dina Kerik, 1999


Martha Marshall said...

Beautiful! I'm so glad you got this up on your blog. Coal Lessons. Coal Essence. Coalescence.

Jann said...

What an incredible story...your father was a lovely man.I grew up outside of Pittsburgh,another coal area and have seen many fathers like your own.Very special people indeed.

Anonymous said...

This is an extrodinary piece of work. It left me wishing for more - could easily be developed for a novel. I would buy it! Thanks, Victoria