Wednesday, September 9, 2015


My middle name is Henry. That was my grandfather’s name. He was a coal miner. It was a tough life, as he described it to me on a warm, muggy, August afternoon, in Southern Illinois. We sat in his backyard, in the shed. The shed was about a hundred feet from the house. On one end was the outdoor john, a vital part of the homestead, in the middle, a coal bin, for fueling the heating and cook stove, and on the opposite end from the outhouse, his hideaway, a small room used to seek shelter from a pretty demanding wife. A 20x50 feet garden was placed between the house and the shed, with a path going down the middle of it. Iris lined the path on both sides. Mainly purple.  He read books in his hideout, mostly  mysteries and cowboy novels; rolled cigarettes (Bugler Tobacco and rolling papers); plotted out next year’s garden; saved bits and pieces of everything (in old Bugler cans); and told me stories. The room was not what you would want to call neat, with a dirt floor, an old kitchen table, a couple of wood chairs, held together with rope, and home-made shelves lining the walls. There were plenty of spiders, mice, and cats lurking about. The room had an earthy sort of smell, particularly in the summer.  A floor fan was used for cooling.  Everything was held together by cobwebs. The shed held a lot of mysteries for a twelve year old boy.

He had all this time for me because he had been hurt in the mine. He broke his back in a mining accident, which he confided in me was probably not an accident. After that, he was not able to work at a regular job. For money, he would do various chores for people.

An underground coal mine was no picnic. My grandfather said he had the feeling that he was being buried alive whenever he would enter the mine. This one was the Southern #9 Coal Mine, located in New Baden, Illinois. It opened in 1899, and eventually got to a depth of three-hundred and twenty feet. The miners would go underground before the sun was up, and come out after sundown. This would go on for weeks at a time. Then, he said, all hell would break loose. Everyone would go on a two or three day bender. He never mentioned any details, but it seems clear now that he had done things during that time of being inebriated that he was not proud of. For a young boy, I didn’t pay any attention to any moral implications. I was fascinated by the excitement of the tales. My mother and grandmother never talked about this part of my grandfather’s past. I don’t think they wanted it to influence our relationship. Perhaps some of the memories hurt too much. Staying quiet about it was a German kind of thing. Anything stirring up emotions was not generally discussed.

They would drink at the company tavern, an extension of the company store.  He said they would drink whatever, and the bartender would “tab it up.” After a night of drinking, they had no idea what they had consumed, but they would get the tab at the end of the month. It all came out of their pay. Between the tavern, the actual company store, where groceries and other items were purchased, and the rent for living in a company home, he indicated there was not much left. Sometimes you owed them more than you had made, which further indebted you to the company.  Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about this in his song, Sixteen Tons: “You load sixteen tons, and what do you get. Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the company store.”  Thinking of this today reminds me that not much has changed over the years for the worker. Millions of people still work for minimum wage, countless people working two jobs, in a desperate attempt to keep up with the economy, which has little regard for minimum wage and the poor. The company store was the corporation.  For a twelve year old boy, I would have had no notion of this. Today it haunts me. I have spent much of my time trying to help people caught in the minimum wage exploitation of their labor.

My grandfather was an early union organizer: The Progressive Mine Workers of America. They had broken away from John Lewis and the United Mine Workers, in an attempt to bring more democracy to the union. The competition between the two unions became a war. There were deaths, which he never elaborated on. It sounded plenty scary. The company didn’t want unions, much less two of them fighting against one another. He said the company would hire detectives, Pinkerton employees, who he referred to as goons, to stir up trouble and rough up some of the union leaders.  His back was broken when a cart broke loose while hauling coal out of the mine. He was sure it was one of the goons who let it loose, but the company claimed it was an accident.  My grandfather had to lay on a piece of plywood placed on a bed for six months. There were no high-tech solutions for a broken back at that time. You lie down and waited for it to heal. And no sooner did he get up from that plywood bed, he had a burst appendix, which nearly killed him. The “accident” definitely took its toll on him. As long as I knew him, he never weighed over one-hundred pounds.

My grandfather died in 1967. My father had died a year earlier, from a heart attack.  After the funeral, my grandfather and I were out in the shed when he looked at me and said, “I wish I had died instead of your father.” Crap. I was eighteen then, but not prepared for that. What kind of man would give up his life to allow his grandson to have his father back? Maybe the kind of man who had given up his life years ago to fight for descent wages and to free himself and his fellow workers from the stranglehold the company store had on them.

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