Mike's Story (BORN In 1895)


My entire childhood was molded by the coal-mining industry. As a child I gleaned coal with Pa. Pa, I always looked up to him, and I remember wanting to be Just like him.

By the time I was ten, Alex, Mary and Marty had been added to our family. Alex and I had to share a bedroom with grandmother and Mary. Our two boarders were content to sleep in the barn. Money was scarce and we grew up with a constant sense of need. I had friends who were a year older and already working as breaker boys. They were now part of the working elite and I was anxious to join them.

A few months past my tenth birthday, Pa told me that they were hiring breaker boys. There was no hesitation on my part. The next day I ran up to the mining office to apply. The boss man knew Pa and said he would talk to him.

The following evening Pa gave me the good news, ''Your hired son. I told Mr. Pasheck that you were a hard worker and reliable. Your to report f or work on Monday''. Pa turned to Ma '' I'll need to take him to the COMPANY STORE on Saturday for some heavy clothes ''. Ma agreed even though she didn't like to buy from them.

That Saturday I was outfitted with two pairs of coveralls and two jackets just like Pas. “The charges” were placed on the bill. We had hoped that I could fit into Frank's (my friend) heavy work boots. He was older and had outgrown his. They still had some wear and with a little cardboard might last another three or 4 months. Unfortunately they were too tight. An extra $1.50 was added to our bill for new boots--extra large (Ma insisted )- but to reasonably conformable with an extra pair of heavy socks.

It was 1 1/2 months before I was able to pay back the debit to Pa for my work clothes.

After my first real paycheck Ma was elated '' I'm so proud of you son, your strong and a hard worker just like your Pa.” She turned to Pa, “I hope that with time we can have the boarders transferred “. Pa knew what that meant. It was hard washing and cooking for two extra men in addition to our growing family.

At age thirteen I obtained my first job deep within the mine as a runner. I had heard the talk. As I exited the elevator of creaky boards and chains the reality of being in a deep black hole-- devoid of all natural light was overwhelming. I stood there frozen. There was no time for coddling. My boss yelled at me ''Get over it boy. Everyone has to pull his weight and your no exception''. We walked a distance down the gangway which was circuitous and branched with deep inclines all covered with steel tracks. Periodically we passed mule-driven cars carrying the coal from the black bowels of the mine to the light. Water trickled down the walls collecting in pools around the tracks. My boss teamed me with another runner who showed me how to use the sprags which were situated on the downside of a summit. We knelt by the scrags and as the loaded cars began their descent it was our job to slow them by inserting scrags on the wheels. My partner and I were on a steep incline requiring scrags on both sides of a car.. At the end of the week I was proud of what I had accomplished. I could run with the best. The dark, cold, rotting damp mine became a part or my life.

By the time I was 14, Uncle Stanley was able to help me obtain a job as a mule driver-- a step up. Nowadays you could equate this with being 16 and obtaining one's driver's license. This was a job associated with some prestige. The pay has betters but what I really enjoyed was the opportunity to drive the mules and cars throughout the mine to the different chambers. With time got to know all the miners and laborers who knew me by names and talked to me man to man.

There were hazards associated with the job considering I had to deal with three stubborn mules. Moses was my lead mute and had to wear a special miners hat with a lamp. I daresay he looked rather comical. Then came Rebecca and Sally. This was a deep mine. The mules lived their entire lives in a stable - within the mine itself. Their daily care was the responsibility of the stable boy. It didn't take long for me to realize that mules were, indeed, obstinate.

Rebecca and Sally could always be bribed with a piece of carrot, or an apple. Moses was more so sophisticated and definitely more stubborn.. My boss intervened ”Mike try him on a plug of chew tobacco. The last mule driver spoiled him.” Sure enough the chew tobacco helped. but 1 had a hard time convincing Ma that I wasn't the one doing the chewing! Your clothes Mike--they smell of tobacco. Are you sure you're not smoking or chewing?'' Even Pa's reassurance didn't seem to help as she moved closer for the more reliable breathe analysis.

Periodically one chamber or another would have to spend additional time re-enforcing the sides and ceiling of their site with lumber. When this occurred there was less time for the extraction of coal and they would fall begins on producing their minimal quota of coal. Subsequently they labored past quitting time until their quota was met since they were paid by the car load and not by the hour.

It soon apparent that some of the contract miners were more generous than others with tips. '' Mike get the empties to us and haul the loads away quickly. The more cars we produce, the more we all make”. I caught on pronto, and they could count on me if they fell behind.

By the time I was 16 three younger sisters had been added to our family. Agnes was born in 1905, Margaret in 1907 and Dorthy in 1910.

It was early Fall and the weather was quite cool. Ma had announced the night before that she was making our favorite for supper.

Maybe it's hereditary but the mere thought of sauerkraut, roast pork, and mashed potatoes always produced the most pleasant gustatory and olfactory stimulation. We all loved Ma's sauerkraut and I was looking forward to supper. I left work ½ hour late because of overtime. As I approached the housed my younger sister Margaret came running to meet me. Margaret was a beautiful child- the only one with black curly hair brown eyes and a milky-white complexion. She had a wonderful smile that captivated everyone. At 4 1/2 she was quite a flirt.

“Mike, Mike” she called ''Can I carry your lunch pail?”

“Sure Margaret.” I replied. ''I left a treat inside just for you-'' I handed her my pail. “Where's Agnes?'' I inquired as she opened my lunch box.

“Agnes is helping Pa and Alex scrub their backs. Oh thank you Mike'' she added as she started on the licorice strip. ''1 told them I was going to wash your back. I did help grandmother peel potatoes. I peeled two all by myself.'' Margaret continued to chew on her licorice until her mouth was as black as her hair.

As we reached the back of the houses the smell of sauerkraut was overwhelming. Margaret followed as be walked through the yard to the wash house.

''Wait out here Margaret. Pa or Alex may still be in the tub.” I opened the door slowly. Alex and Pa were out of the tub but in their underwear. ''Better wait in the house small stuff. I'll let you know when I'm ready. I'll knock on the wall three times. Be sure to tell Ma I'm home.”

''Three knocks'' she replied. “I'll be sitting in the kitchen. Don't forget.”

Pa opened the cupboard and brought down three glasses and the whiskey bottle. “I'll pour one for you, Mike--looks like you had some overtime.”

An ounce of whiskey or a beer was a standard ritual after a day in the mines. Whether it helped to clear the lungs of coal dust or not--I don't know; but the relaxation and camaraderie with my Pa and younger brother was invaluable.

Pa always limited our intake. He frowned on public drunkenness and frequently reminded us of the crippling effect whiskey had on the mind and body.

I stripped to my waist; and with my long underwear still hanging from by pants, I filled the basin with clean warm water from the boiler and washed my head and upper torso. Then as promised I knocked three times on the wall. Before I could get back to the table and basin, Margaret was at the door.

“Come on in Margaret'' Pa greeted her with a big, warm smile, “I hear you've been helping Ma with supper”.

''Yes,'' she replied simply as she ran and planted a kiss on pass cheek. “Pa, I'll wash your back tomorrow. I was busy today, and it was Mike's turn.” She ran to my side. The feel of her small fingers and the soapy cloth on my skin has comforting.

“We need to hurry -- scrub, scrub.” she sang and as she finished, “Ma said supper will be ready shortly'' and with that she left.

Pa and Alex finished their drinks and were dressed. As Pa and Alex left, Pa looked back. ''No time for talking Mike-- but I do want to talk to you and Alex after supper. Not we'd better get to Ma's table before she sends the rest of the gang in after us''

I added the basin water and additional hot water to the tub.''Tell Ma I'll join you in ten minuets.''

Grace said, the family dug in. A1l conversation was temporarily subdued by Ma's gastronomical offerings. And there was plenty for seconds.

Our younger siblings were the first to leave via of their usual route--under the table. Mary and Agnes cleared the table along with Grandmother. Pa was unusually quiet but brightened as Ma poured coffee, “I knew you were a woman of worth the moment I tasted your cooking. You've never failed us.”

Ma was never one to take a compliment in stride, ''Now Jacob, you know it's just sauerkraut but I'm glad you enjoyed it.”

Pa stood up and reached for his coffee, “Mike and Alex, I need to talk to you. Let's go back to the shanty while it's still warm.”

We still need to empty the tub and I need to talk to you. You too Marty--you need to hear this.

Coffee in handy we returned to the shanty and proceeded to empty and clean the tub. Pa sat at the table with his hands cuffing the coffee cup. “I talked to John Kazinski today. Do you remember him?”

''Sure Pa,” Alex replied, We met him in church. I thought he moved to Vulcan Hills.”

''He did” Pa responded, “He told us that there was a terrible accident at their mine yesterday. His nephew Franks who is 12, and working as a door boy was crushed by a runaway car. It crushed his legs. His condition is critical.”

Alex was up and pacing I hate working in the mines Pa. The mine owners don't give a dam about us. It's like being in Hell and your still alive. How did it happen? How did the car get away? Where was the mute driver?”

Pa shook his head, ''From what I hear the two mules failed he stop at the end of the summit-- they just pulled ahead. By the time the mule driver realized what happened he barely had time to unhitch the mules and turn them off the gangway when the loaded car came pounding down the slope at full speed. Even the runners were caught off guard. They heard a scream as the car crashed into the closed door. Frank must have fallen asleep. He didn't have a chance.”

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. what about blocks Pa? Didn't the mule driver have blocks in place before the downturn? Did he call out to the door boy as he approached, I know they get drowsy down there in the dark. I always call out and wait for a response. Pa threw his arms up in frustrations ''None of that was done-- none of it ! The mule driver was questioned and has been black balled”. Pa again stressed the need to follow safety precautions. “You can't be too cautious; you can't take short-cuts.”

I reassured Pa, I don't take short cuts Pa and I never will. 1 don't ever want to be responsible for another mans injury or death-- or my own.”

Marty had been listening intently. Pa turned to him, “Marty, you've been working as. a breaker boy for six months. One of these days your going to be down in the mines with us. It's a dangerous place and you have to be on guard.”

“Don't worry about me, Pa” Marty replied. “I like like being alive and I hope to stay that way-- even if I have to look out for everybody else.”

Frank survived. They did save one leg but the other was amputated.

March 1st, 1912. That is a date I will never forget. I have a constant reminder- it is the date I lost the vision in my right eye. I remember the day as dreary, cold and windy. Long under- wear was in and would be for another 4 to 6 weeds. Fresh snow was predicted. This in addition to the 6 inches of ground cover that already existed.

It was a busy morning. Fridays usually were. Some of the miners would try to liked to leave a bit early and meet their quotas before 5p.m..After lunch 1 hurried back to my team. The mules were expecting a treat at this time. There would be no work without it. I saved some apple for Rebecca and Sally. After offering Moses a bit of chew we were off. The loaded cars were piling up.

We were into our third hour when Moses began to hold back. I signaled with the whip to go on -a cracking sound above their heads. No we never whipped the moles- we wouldn't dare. The whip was used strictly as a signal.

Moses continued to balk. I left my perch on the first car and walked to him. Perhaps another bit of chew would help. He accepted this eagerly. ''Enough's enough, Moses-- you're getting spoiled. Now let's get on with it. Were getting behind.''

I walked by his side to lead him down the gangway, and I could see that he was limping and having a problem with his right hind foot. I turned the team and the two loaded cars off on a side track and unhitched Moses. ''Sorry boy -I didn't know your were hurting.

Maybe I should have offered you a beer.” Over the years this old Mute and I had become quite attached.

I was near one of the working chambers. Pete Walchek the miner in charge came walking towards me “Mike are you having problems? I saw you turn off.-Do you need help?”

“It's Moses I think he has a stone or splinter in his hind foot. I'll call you-if I need help.”

“Well, be careful” he warned as he walked back to his site.

“I will.” I always was careful. I gave Moses another plug of tobacco. He was definitely skittish. “It's O.K. boy. Just take it easy -take it easy.'' I approached from the side. The last thing I remember is lifting Moses' hind leg.

I woke up in the Pottsville Hospital one week later. Pa was as my side. Everything looked blurred and I could only see from my left eye. The right side of my face and head was covered with bandages also my right eye. My head and face were pounding and I couldn't speak. My mouth and tips were dry and swollen.

I could hear Pa, ''Take it easy son. You were hurt bad but you're going to be alright.” Pa had his hand on my right forearm and it felt good.

Pa and my brother Alex were regular visitors. They filled me in on the details. Moses had kicked and pummeled my face, skulls and eye. I had a fractured skull but no hemorrhage. They managed to save my eye but my vision was lost forever. I had many lacerations and there would be some scarring but the doctors told me not to worry --I would've as handsome as ever. Frankly, I felt lucky to have survived.

John Quinn and Tony Walinski, two men from the local union also came to visit. Pa had several tong conversations with them, ''I understand they will pay for all Makers medical expenses. What if he has to be readmitted later?”

“They'll pay for that as well.” John replied. ''The bad news is that there is no compensation for time lost secondary to the accident or for time at home recovering, and I'm sure Mike will be out at least 6 to 8 more weeks.''

Pa shook his head, “That's not right, -it's not fair; and they have never compensated anyone for the loss of a limb or eye.''

Alex looked up. I could see he was angry. “They're killing us. Pa, they're killing everybody. They don't give a damn about us. What good are the unions??''

Joseph was quick to point out the slow but sure progress the unions were making. “We've come a long way but we have a long road ahead of us. They're enacting laws now to keep children under the age of 14 out of the mines and in school. We're also trying to negotiate for more and longer death benefits. We do have the public on our side and the courts are listening to our complaining but the big corporations with their high paid lawyers are fighting us every inch of the way. They say their profits are down, and they recently had the nerve to propose a cut in our wages.''

Alex was fuming, “We're busting our butts and they want to cut our wages?? We need to go after them like the Molly Maguires.” Pa interrupted, “Hold it Alex. Anger alone won't solve anything. Let's hear them out.”

John was the one who continued. “The government auditors are looking at their books now. The Big guys own everything. They own the collieries and the railroad companies. The railroad companies are charging illegally high fees for transporting the coal. The collieries take it off as an expense and then complain that their profit margin has been considerably reduced. The auditors are pointing out that the profit, if not going in one pocket, is going in the other.. So don't give up on the union. We need your help Jacob. We know you're a member but we need everybody's support, and we need the dues. We have lawyers and auditors working for us and they have been very helpfully.”

Pa agreed, ''The union is all we have. At least the government is listening. Yes, I'm support the union. I want my sons to have a better life than I have had. I'll talk to my friends and neighbors. I know they feel as I do, but they need to be more aware of what you're doing.''

Enough said. We had a lot to think about. As for me, I was anxious to get on my feet and

out of the hospital: bib first T had to deal with my headaches and dizziness.