This poem is about underground coal miners – people who did, or do, very dangerous work. My father and grandfathers were three. This is also about life in our home when Dad still worked in the mines.
During my early teens, the mining business shut down in northeastern Pennsylvania. This was due to the Knox Mine Disaster in the late 1950s and the easy, cheaper, and cleaner use of oil to heat homes. Today, most coal mined in the USA is exported, but the industry continues to decline. Only 30% of electrical power in America is produced by coal.
Nearer My Hell to Thee By Bill Reynolds
Before leaving the daylight, and going into the pits,
They look deep into the ground, to the soul of the abyss.
The blackest of blacks, the darkest of darks, and danger,
The dank abyss peers back as men descend into nature.
Far below ground, the mine was there lurking, waiting;
That dangerous, disgusting damnation of sound,
For some small wages, they go into that hole far underground.
Deadly it was and deadly it is, they never know when…
Many wives cried at the loss of their men,
Who died in the gut of the deplorable depths.
It was frightening work miners chose, those jobs that killed.
Black hard hats on heads, mining lamps on to cut the dark,
But still never safe. In denial or not, it was dangerous work.
Father was, and so were both grandfathers, miners all.
Walking home through muddy fields and dark alleys,
Dangerous on pay days; all cash in their pockets,
With blackjacks and knuckles, maybe a gun.
He’d push open the gate, then let it slam with a thud.
Dad would stomp up the stairs and in the back door,
It was always the back way after a day’s work.
Covered with coal dust,
The sweat of the labor, and the stink of the mines;
Smoking his Camels, always coughing and coughing.
But he was my Dad, and it was always like this.
Everything filthy, his clothing all rotting,
Black on his skin, and in his gray hair,
He didn’t know about the black in his lungs,
the deadly back dust was glued on hard, but not to his soul.
White at his eyes and over his lips,
he’d set down his lunch pail. No hugs, no kisses,
just “hiya,” and not much of a welcome.
His coat and his cap, and his boots all come off.
Trounced upstairs to the bath, footsteps pounding the way,
Transformation, about to take place.
In cold water each day, he washed coal dirt away,
From his face and his hair, his neck and his chest,
From his waist to his feet, but not from the rest.
Nothing could wash the coal miner away.
Not the water, the union, the beer, or smokes.
Not on the inside, from his throat nor deep in his lungs.
Black dust in his body and in with his blood.
It was always the same, until the disaster.
Miners to work, to suffer and die.
Returning to homes, dirty but to homes they came.
Then one day, the depression set in.
The mines all shut down, proud miners, no work.
One day it all ended and everything changed.
Miners laid off, the mines were all closed.
Oil was king, and nobody noticed.
No more abyss, just a new kind of dark.
If you not yet sufficiently depressed, watch this.
She was born about a century ago into a society where racism, sexism, and white male superiority were status quo. She and her sister were daughters of a Welsh immigrant coal miner and his Irish-Catholic wife. It was 1920, and she was an eight-year-old little girl with curly red hair. Her early twentieth-century life was made more difficult in that her mother had died two years earlier. Prohibition and Woman’s Suffrage were the topics being discussed in government and social gatherings. Inside the many, soon to be illegal, drinking establishments, these legal or social-issues were bantered about as either evil or redemptive. Few streets were paved, coal was king, and indoor plumbing was a luxury. Their widowed father had enrolled them in a full-time, strict, residential Catholic boarding school. That would happen soon, but not today.
The First Man
Since father usually made a stop or two on his way home, it was hard to judge his arrival time. When the men who worked twelve or more hours in the underground coal mines finished their work-day, they walked home. Their visible skin was black, covered in coal dust. Because eye sockets and the area of their lips were usually wiped clean, they looked like men in the black-face makeup of the vaudeville and minstrel shows of the day. Coal miner cloths were always filthy. Their appearance was distinct.
She had been in the kitchen helping her slightly-older, barely-teenage sister prepare dinner, but she knew it was nearly that time. She moved to the living room where she could take her usual position. Soon enough, she heard his familiar cough and the sound of his voice as he acknowledged neighbors. As he grew near and she could tell it was him, her excitement would grow as it had for years. She felt delight and love for this stoic Welshman. After work, he was usually more outgoing, partly due to the social and medicinal nature of his homeward-trek diversions. The front door was never locked, so when he opened it, his familiar frame was encased by the doorway. Each time this happened it was the same—she would jump up and run toward him and he would immediately stop her. “Now Bernie, you mustn’t get your dress dirty. Where is Dee?” The sight of her father set in the doorway after returning home would be fixed in her mind for the rest of her life.
The Second Man
Her first marriage ended in the disaster of desertion. With her baby daughter in tow and no financial help, but technically still married, she moved back in with her family. Her father had long since remarried to a widow with three children. They had two more daughters together. It was a full and busy home. She struggled emotionally and financially, taking whatever work she could find. Her income was from seasonal stints making candy at local candy stores. Back then, most candy stores made what they sold in the store. Now in her thirties, she was seeing a man whose wife had died a year or so earlier. At some point, she became aware of another major life-changing event. During what must have been a traumatic and embarrassing time, she finally divorced her first husband and persuaded the Catholic Church to annul that marriage. After the wedding, she and her teenage daughter moved into his house with him and his two children. She was now stepmother, stepsister, half-sister, remarried, and pregnant. She had married a coal miner, like her father.
When this man returned home from work, he wore the same drab trappings of men who worked long days underground in a dark, dirty, and dangerous world. He would arrive home from the alley at the back and enter directly into the kitchen. When she looked up, his black silhouette was framed by the kitchen doorway. Her 1920s childhood had been replaced by post-WWII drudgery and insecurity. Their son was born seven months into the marriage. She named him after her father, who died a year earlier. Each day, she was relieved to see her husband return safely home. Funerals and memorial services for coal miners killed in mine disasters were common. Eventually, in the 1950s, the anthracite coal industry would be undermined and replaced by oil.
Coal was not only king, it was the only real industry in the region and the workers knew nothing else. Her husband, and eventually all other coal miners would lose their jobs. The region became disastrously economically depressed. She would end up working in a shoe factory because her husband was unable to find a job; and when he did, it paid little. To support the family, she would spend years working in the shoe factory. The family struggled, but managed. And eventually, by the 1970s, each of the four children moved on to marriages and families of their own. But, when her husband became ill, she neglected her health for his. Following his death, she finally got the lump in her breast seen about—more bad news.
The Third Man
The cancer had taken its toll, but she’d survived almost ten years. Mastectomy and radiation treatments where long past, but a spot on her lung was determined to be metastasized breast cancer. It was back. While in the hospital following surgery, she was sitting on a window sill looking outside at what she thought was a beautiful day. She had a positive attitude and was looking forward to better times. It was a nice day and soon he would be with her.
She heard footsteps, a familiar cough, and his voice speaking to nurses. She had turned and was looking up just as he stepped on the threshold into her room. She loved the way he looked in his uniform and was delighted to see this man standing there, framed by the hospital-room doorway. She jumped up and ran to him as only a woman in her seventies could. Unlike the days with her stoic father and distant husbands, this man embraced her. They hugged and kissed for a while. She looked up at him and said, “I am so happy to see you.” He smiled and looking down at her asked, “Mom, didn’t you just have surgery?” “I don’t care,” she said. “You are here now.”