Mines collapse my dreams.
It’s always the same. I stand outside a mineshaft. My father is trapped inside, buried alive behind rock and dirt. I am alone, and I have a shovel. I am not a big, burly coal miner; I am a girl-child holding a shovel twice my height. I dig and dig, but I know I will never reach him. I wake up crying, the words to a U2 song in my head.
From Father to Son
The blood runs thin
Our faces frozen (still) against the wind
Years ago, I was teaching an American literature class at Marshall University in West Virginia. We were discussing Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which tells the story of his experiment in simple living. Thoreau tried to find a new way to balance the creation of art and making a living: by raising his own food, reducing his needs, and building a cabin in the woods. Living this way encouraged him to reflect on how many people work for things and money, and not for the time and reflection so necessary for art and, Thoreau believed, a meaningful existence.
My students, mostly 20-year-olds, were not getting it. They tapped their pens, doodled in their notes, or looked past me with a hundred-yard-stare. When we reached the passage where Thoreau writes “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” an older, returning male student — probably in his fifties — spoke up. We had never heard his voice before, so when it came, we all turned.
“Look at these,” he said through the gravel in his voice. His large frame squeezed into a student desk, he held his hands out in front of him, fingers spread. They were tremendous hands, with big, thick knuckles. Dark hair sprouted from the backs of his hands and fingers. Scars cross-hatched the skin. If I had seen only his hands, I would have thought him an 80-year-old man. He tried to move his gnarled fingers, and they barely wiggled.
“I know what this guy means,” he said. “I spent most of my life down in a dark hole in the ground. I know what ‘quiet desperation’ means. My grandfather died trapped in the mine I worked in. My father died from black lung he got working in that mine. I thought I’d die down there, too, someday. That’s just what men in my family did.”
He looked around at the younger students. “You don’t know what this means yet. You might even think I look stupid here, while you plan your parties and make your dates. But my mine shut down, and I’m here to do anything to make sure I don’t ever go down in any other black hole again.”
The seam is split
The coal face cracked
The lines are long
And there’s no going back
The glass is cut
The bottle run dry . . . .
We’re wounded by fear
Injured in doubt
When my father’s side of the family gets together for our summer reunions at the beach, we tell family stories that have been retold again and again, including one about my big, burly grandfather, Michael Hudak: a coal miner for part of his life, like my student back at Marshall.
Tall and strong, my grandfather had hands that could fix anything. I took him my broken chains and battered toys, and he would sit at his desk in the corner of the kitchen, holding a magnifying lens and small tools. His hands were muscled and rough, but labored almost delicately at the tiny work in front of him. He cared about the details of small things, and took pride in handling them. I imagined that he learned this from his father.
My grandfather was born to immigrant parents from Slovakia, who lived at the place where the Appalachian Mountains run through eastern Pennsylvania. His father, Joseph, worked in the coal mines. In a black and white picture I have of Joseph as a young man, he looks grimly at the camera: his almond-shaped eyes, so like mine, are stern. He stands there — neat, clean — looking like a man who is in control of his world.
The whole family helped out around the mine. As was the custom those days, mining families lived in a company village, ate food from a company store, went to a company church. When my grandfather was ten years old, he picked coal out of shale as coal cars ran underneath him. Many other boys fell and lost limbs or died. Michael was glad to get the work. The family needed the money.
On the day the mine caved in, trapping many miners beneath the surface, my grandfather Michael waited outside for hours. Rumors spun through the crowd: first, that some miners were alive and were coming out; then, that only a few had survived. It was later reported that a large air pocket had saved many. With each new rumor, my great-grandmother clutched her hugely pregnant belly. Finally, the sweating foreman gave the final report: all dead.
Joseph’s wife, pregnant with her eleventh child, went into labor early and died soon after. Miners’ families were thrown out of their company-provided homes once the main laborer died. To keep the family from becoming homeless, my great-uncle Johnny married the girl next door, went down into the mine that killed his father, and with his new wife raised the rest of the children.
And you leave us holding on
In Red Hill Town
As the lights go down
I’m hanging on
You’re all that’s left to hold on to
Because of his older brother’s sacrifice, my grandfather was able to do more than be a miner: he painted houses, became a semi-pro basketball player. Once, as we were sitting around the kitchen table, he told me how basketball was played in his day: “It was five separate wrestling matches.”
More than that, it was an excuse for the explosion of anger that had no other legitimized expression. The organizers of the games placed nets around the court to keep the fans — mostly miners — from storming the players. At the end of each game the organizers would turn out the lights, hoping to stop some of the fights. After the buzzer rang and the arena went dark, my grandfather would climb the nets to try to get out of the worst of the brawls. Hanging high in the air, he would laugh about the poor fools who got left on the ground. Others weren’t so smart.
My grandfather eventually become a father himself and planned to make sure his children never had to work in the mines. Even though my father, uncle, and aunt never did work there, they grew up in Appalachian mining culture, which they fought to escape just as fiercely as they might have the mines themselves. My uncle “Oz” played both college and pro football; my aunt went to college to become nurse. My father got recruited by the best football and basketball programs in the country. He played at UNC, went pro for a short time, then became a dentist.
He got out.
My father’s hands are not scarred. The skin is smooth and uncalloused. Sitting in his office as a child, I watched him work on a patient, clutching tiny instruments as he gently scraped a tooth. He looked so big in comparison to the small mouth he was working in, shoulders hunched and neck curved down to concentrate. His voice was soft and kind, and he talked to his patient as he worked.
I’m hanging on . . . .
See the lights go down on Red Hill Town
See lights go down on Red Hill Town
I had the opportunity to see the mines myself. While living in West Virginia, I made a friend, Sam, whose family owns land in Mingo County that they lease to coal mining companies. After hearing me rant and rave one too many times about mining and reclamation of the land without personal evidence to back up my claims, Sam took me to what was left of his family land.
He spread a blanket on the rough ground, a small soft spot in a moonscape. We stood on top of a mountain stripped bare, its bedrock exposed to the air, looking out over Mingo County. The coal company had removed the top of the mountain and put the debris in the streambed below. Sam’s family had leased the land to the mining company before he was old enough to understand what that meant. In bringing me here he was showing me — the outsider liberal, protesting mountain top removal — what insiders already know: there is no recovery after mining. “Over 20 years ago,” he said, “I planted those trees over there with my family.” They were the only green things in sight other than a strange, straggly, weedy type of grass that he told me the coal company had planted as part of their “reclamation” effort.
But what I saw was not reclaimed. No top soil. No water but rainwater that ran off immediately. Not much growing. Not much of a legacy for Sam to leave to his children. Sure, his father’s generation made some money. “But what happens to the land now?” Sam asked.
On the way back home, Sam stopped by an active mine shaft. I looked at the entryway, and I couldn’t breathe. “I could take you down,” he said, looking straight into my eyes. I averted my gaze and shook my head. I couldn’t go down. I watched others go. Not me. Not ever me.
And we scorch the earth
Set fire to the sky
Stoop so low to reach so high
I couldn’t stay away. I went back as a volunteer and worked in a food bank run by the women of Big Laurel Learning Center, handing out government issued cans to thin women whose children waited in banged-up station wagons. Mingo County is one of the poorest places in the U.S., with high domestic violence rates, murder rates, child mortality rates. People don’t live long here. Movies such as Matewan and October Sky were set here. I can see why.
As coal runs out in Mingo County, the area is becoming more like a postcolonial, Third World country than someplace we would think of as the United States. Multinational, out of state, and even West Virginia owned corporations came for the coal, destroyed the natural resources, put the people to work in dangerous conditions, and took the money they made off the land and people. They sucked the earth and people dry, then blamed the people for their own poverty. “Hillbillies” are taught that they are poor because they are backwards, dim-witted products of incest who choose their own poverty over working hard and keeping up with progress. Like other postcolonial populations, some of them start to believe it, just a little, deep inside.
One day at the food bank, a woman my age came in. She looked tired, run down. Four kids with her. She showed a card to the nun working the food bank, who wrote something in graceful script on an index card. I looked over the nun’s shoulder: “mine widow” it said. I watched the woman struggle to keep her children — quiet and respectful — together.
I put a few extra cans into her food box when no one was looking.
A link is lost
The chain undone
Now we wait all day
For the night to come
And it comes . . .
Like a hunter (child)
As I listen to this U2 song now, I hurt for the fathers who died because of mining. For my student at Marshall University who was getting an education in order to escape the mines. For my friend, Sam, whose family owns land destroyed by the mines, and who attempts to make amends for the wrongs committed. For the women of Big Laurel, who make Mingo County a better place. And for my own father.
Because, you see, after all these generations, my father is going down into the mine after all. Not a mine of rock and steel, but one of chemicals and radiation. This weekend, I saw the tattoos on his chest that the doctors will use to steady their aim. They will bring him as close to death as they dare. Like his father before him, who died of cancer housed in genes tainted by the mines, my father goes down, too.
From Father to Son
The blood runs thin
Our faces frozen (still) against the wind
Ultimately, we all have to go down, and face what we must.