John L and FDR on the Mantel
Family Life After Unionization
The tipple was every bit as dominant in the coalfields as the company
store. I can see the chute leading up the mountain towards the men who
were (in my day) hand-loading coal that would shoot downward to the
tipple and into the waiting jaws of the ever present black coal cars,
raising huge clouds of "bug dust" that wafted in every direction and
settled on everything-including my mother's newly washed starched curtains
drying on the curtain stretchers on the front porch. Lord, how we washed
those curtains and those windows.
The coal cars, full of coal, sat on the sidetrack, being switched
further away from the tipple to make room for more. Finally, late at
night, the engines came (steam, not diesel) and switched the cars back
and forth along the sidetrack away from the main railroad line.
All night long the hissing and clanking of coupling and uncoupling
coal cars kept you compahy if you were awake in the dark-but it didn't
scare you. It made you comfortable, because you knew that along with
that engine and those coal cars, came humans, real people, and they
were out there in the dark, calling to one another and laughing. You
knew they'd watch out for you and keep away monsters and ghosts
(and this was especially comforting to a little girl whose older brother
and sister had regaled her with graveyard stories just before bedtime).
I used to feel really sad when finally the loaded cars were all hooked
together and the engine was at the front, the red caboose I knew
was on the end, and the steam engine whistle blew as it entered the
main rail line and took the coal away.
Next morning when it was light, there as if a miracle had happened,
were empty cars waiting to be filled with the coal my father, and other
fathers, sons and brothers, loaded by hand and sent down the mountain.
Pictures remind me of the miners in their work gear, and the little
carbide lamp attached to their hard hats- and we loved to help put
carbide in the little pop-top hole in the bronze lamp that would light
Daddy's way down in the mine. And we knew our mother had put an extra
"treat" into the lunch bucket so Daddy could "bring us something" from
work. But that was only for little ones-and you never knew quite whether
to be proud, or sad when you outgrew being "little" enough to get a
treat from the lunch bucket. Even then, the treat had a funny taste, and
really wasn't that good; that wasn't the point. Daddy had gone down in
the dark mines that morning, and the treat was proof positive that he
We were not unaware of that terrible wailing sound of the tipple whistle
when a mine disaster had occurred. Even community grade schools turned
out and headed for the tipple to wait for the man-trip to come down that
little track from the top-carrying the miners who always "came out" when
an accident occurred, if it was fatal. One knew, if one's Daddy didn't
get off that final run, it must be him that got hurt or killed. Or, with
shining hope, we would then tell one another that Daddy had stayed behind
to help-and it was true every time for me. Because my father was never
killed in the mines; he died six years ago of black lung. But many of my
friends and neighbors watched and waited for one who never came- not, at
least, climbing off that man-trip bringing the live ones out and down.
I remember those drafty old houses with their splintered floors, where
the linoleum didn't quite reach far enough, and how cold they were in
winter. It's true that only those standing right in front of those coal
burning grates were warm, and then only one side at a time. I've built
many a coal fire in those grates in each room of the house except the
Ah, the kitchen stove was a wonder-it had a tank on the side that
heated the water for the returning miner's bath before din-her. Each of
us children (of the 12--10 girls and two boys) had to take turns getting
up each winter morning and "building the fires" kitchen having first
priority since it takes a good hot oven to bake bread every morning.
My older brother told me that if I'd slip outside, across the narrow
dirt road, and into the sidetrack where the coal cars waited, and if
I'd lift the trap on the "dope boxes"'on those cars and grab a handful
of "dope" (I don't know the real name for "dope;' and I don't know why
it was there)- but if I'd do that, and bring the dope back to the kitchen
stove, its greenish slick cottony bulk would burn like mad and start that
kitchen kindling and coal to burning in no time. He was right.
He cautioned me not to get caught, or I'd surely land in jail. It was a
long time before I figured out he was probably kidding about jail.
Imagine a family of 14 in various stages of growth and noise, living in
a coal company house of four rooms, one of them the kitchen, and you
will imagine wall-to-wall double beds, and you won't be wrong. You had
to have a lot of seniority to get a "big" house, big enemgh to
accommodate a large family. It was cozy in winter, though. All
the houses had front and back porches. We sat out there in summer,
and our mother would build "gnat smokes" to keep the bugs away.
It worked, too. I wonder how many readers remember how to build a
I remember John L. Lewis; we had a picture of him framed, on the mantel
(all coal company houses had mantels over the fireplace grates). Beside
his picture, also framed, was FDR. I grew mighty tall before I
figured out they weren't respected relatives on whom we could depend
for better times, but respected and revered leaders-one of the coal miners'
union and the other of a desperate nation. But I loved to listen
to the sound of their voices on the radio-and if we didn't care to
listen, we had better be quiet because it was tantamount to treason
to make a noise during those fireside chats that might cause one
to miss a single word of what was being said.
I remember my first day of school (and yes, it's true we walked miles
to school in those days, snow or shine), but what makes my first day of
school memorable is the total, devastating disappointment! Somehow I
had come to believe that if Franklin Roosevelt, a household word, was the
greatest man in the world, and if the second greatest segment of
humanity were, as I was led to believe, teachers, then it was
reasonable to expect that Eleanor Roosevelt would be the teacher.
She wasn't. I cried. The new teacher understood, and at the end of
my first day, I was certain I did not care that much; my teacher was
nice, and she gave me a ride home so I wouldn't have to walk. I backslid
only once on the way home, thinking how much more exciting it would
be to arrive home in teacher's car if teacher was Eleanor! I was
a celebrity, nonetheless, and soon forget my longing for Mrs. Roosevelt.
Children are impressionable-and my whole life and that of my family
during my "formative" years revolved around John L. Lewis and Franklin
Roosevelt. Those are my earliest and clearest memories.