Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 1

~~~Widen, West Virginia, September 1952~~~

              No one knew how long the strike would last.


Bullets whizzed past Thirl Nettles’ head. Bolting for cover, he leaped into his 1940 Plymouth sedan. His right leg throbbed with a red-hot searing pain all the way up into his groin. Only moments before he’d left the League of Widen Miners meeting, strolled past the tipple and began whistling, “Walking The Floor Over You.”

            “Thirl! You okay?”

            “I’ve been hit!” He slid down on the seat and pressed his hand on the wound, the inside of his car spinning around his head.

            “Hold on!”

            The pain was like nothing he’d experienced before. Not just a pain—an explosion like a live grenade thrown into his body. It couldn’t be contained. It spread and expanded, searched for ways to escape the confinement of his skin. His flesh vibrated with it.

            Hearing his heartbeat in his ears, he glanced down at his legs. Dark, warm blood soaked his pants. For a moment, he was sure they were his dad’s legs, the day they carried him out of the Macbeth mine explosion—dead. Thirl remained crouched down and motionless on the seat as more rifle fire struck his car, until dark was the only hand he had to hold before he passed out.


Dawn arrived, sifting its dull light through DeDe Nettles’ lace panel curtains. In the front room, the coal stove grumbled and ashes rattled into the ash pan. The morning was miserable cold, raw and damp, the kind of damp that ate into your bones and sucked out the marrow. It had rained for two weeks straight. Buffalo Creek ran high, its steep banks muddy and slick.

            Thirl didn’t know who had come to his rescue. He opened his dark eyes to find a blurry Doctor Vance hovering over him. The other side of the bed was still made, the pillow tucked neatly under the chenille spread. Groggy, Thirl heard the doctor’s voice before he passed out again.

            Doctor Sherwood Vance, a wide, solid stump of a man, bald and nearsighted behind wire-rimmed glasses, worked the bulge of muscles in his jowls to and fro, all while he muttered mostly to himself, but partly to DeDe.

“Bastards ... low lifes. Miners, they call themselves, but they have no loyalties, not to their town, not to their country, not even to each other. They call themselves godly men but they’d sell their souls for a wooden nickel and a plug of tobacco. They talk like politicians, up one side and down the other. No respect for the League tryin’ to make life better for them. What do they expect when somebody like Jack Hamrick goes berserk in the mine! He deserved to be fired!”

DeDe pulled the blanket over her husband to keep him warm. She had combed back his oiled hair and washed the coal dust from his face the best she could. He’d kept a trim figure all these years despite his diet of fried potatoes, bacon, sausage, and squirrel. And daily helpings of molasses and biscuits. The man ate for enjoyment, like most men that worked in a coal mine.

DeDe watched their son, James Curtis, pull his legs up to his chest and sink into the bottom of his dad’s bed. He stared at the blood on the floor. At nineteen, he stood as tall and lanky as Thirl and shared his unreadable dark blue eyes and constant smile. But where his dad’s hair exuded the color of brown mountain clay, James Curtis had inherited her burnt red locks, often appearing as if they’d been dipped in honey when the sun hit at the right angle.

DeDe gave her son’s shoulder a soft hug, pulled off his cap and kissed the top of his head. Until that moment, she had no strength to ask questions. Her immediate concern was to assist the doctor in keeping her husband alive. But anger bubbled just under the surface of her constraint, searching for a way out of her mouth. She wiped sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, then followed the doctor into the kitchen to prime the pump. Tears dripped down her cheeks as she watched Doc Vance lean into the sink and scrub her husband’s blood off his hands.

All the nights she lingered near the sink while Thirl washed up after work in her tiny kitchen, stripped to the waist, mine dirt covered him like shoe polish. He’d dip his arms over and over in water up to his elbows, scrubbing with a wire brush and hard granite-like soap, turning the water black. She thought she’d never again see the true color of his skin. Black coal dust collected in the creases of his neck and in the wrinkles of his face. To DeDe, her husband’s hands looked like black bear paws. She knew he was proud to never have lost a finger. Thirl had told her he regarded non-life threatening professions as jobs for women and men with too much education. She saw him as a person who’d been unknowingly thrown into a world between heaven and hell. She’d heard the Catholics had a name for it. But unlike everybody else in the coal camp, he was content in the place he stood—never expecting God to give him more. Even if he damn well deserved it.

A sob caught in her throat. Her voice and stare were equally painful. “What happened, Doc?”

Doc Vance scrubbed then dried his hands on a clean towel. “Thirl was there when Harry Gandy fired Jack Hamrick last week. You know Jack and Opal? I believe they attend your church.”

“Don’t recall his face. I know his wife.” She wiped her tears with the cuffs of her blouse, then motioned for him to have a seat at the kitchen table.

            “The way I hear it, Hamrick went plum crazy last week when asked to work in a trackless section of the mine where a new machine was bein’ given a tryout. Hamrick flew into a rage, shoutin’ the job was unsafe and that the company was tryin’ to kill its men. Damn fool, took a pop bottle, broke off the end, and slashed a gash an inch long in his supervisor’s cheek. Took me an hour to stitch him up. You got any coffee?”

“I’ll make some,” she said. After rinsing out cups, she filled the coffee pot with water and Maxwell House, and then turned the electric stove on high. While it perked, DeDe began scrubbing found blood off the table with jagged sweeps of her arm. Her elbows pumped sharply. She sniffed more tears back in her head, but didn’t speak.

Doc Vance removed his blood-spattered glasses and wiped each lens slowly. “I wasn’t there when Gandy fired Hamrick. But I walked into Gandy’s office tonight right after the League meeting. Thirl had just left. Nobody expected miner retaliation. After all, it’d been a week since they’d fired Hamrick—but seems Jonas Zirka, a troublemaker in my mind, got everybody all stirred up. When problems come to the mine and things look bad, there’s always one man who thinks he’s got all the answers and is willing to take command. Usually, that individual is crazy. This time, it’s Zirka. Hamrick needed firing. But Zirka’s gonna use it and some other lame issues to try and bring in the union again. Lies are an infectious disease. I think Zirka contracted it from some fat cat in the UMW. Anyway, I heard the gunfire. So did Gandy.”           

DeDe stormed back into her husband’s sick room and glared at her son. “Get a message to Mister Gandy. Make sure he knows it was your daddy that’s been shot. Use the phone in his office to call the sheriff.”

“Ain’t no use calling the sheriff, Mama. Picket line’s done been formed at the top of Widen hill. Doc’s right. Zirka’s behind it. All that noise last night, those car horns blowing and moving through the streets? Strike’s on. I was with Savina last night. When I took her home, it was Odie who told me ‘bout Daddy. I wanted to go straight to the sheriff. But her daddy said the law won’t come unless somebody’s dead ‘cause Widen is all private property, owned by Joseph Bradley.”  She knew her son saw no point in holding back the truth, even from a woman.

“Odie said he’s gonna strike.”

“Then you get a message to Savina’s daddy. Tell Odie he best remember who helped him with his farm last year when Josephine died.” She gave her son a maternal once-over that made him instinctively straighten up from his slouched position on the bed.

“Yes, Ma’am. Next time I see Savina.”

“Your girl, Savina, she’s welcome here James, but Odie’s not gonna allow your skinny company butt on his property.”

“No, Ma’am.”

She watched James lower his gaze to her bare feet. They were filthy and spattered with blood. A few of her pretty red toenails were chipped. They were to attend a church sing in Gassaway tomorrow. She was going to wear shoes with her toes sticking out. Two nights before she had held a bottle of red nail polish in front of Thirl, and he smiled. “Real pretty,” he’d said.

Doc Vance carried two cups of coffee in from the kitchen. With his elbows fanned out and his eyes on the cups, he glided up and handed her a cup, stiffly easing himself down on the chair beside her. They continued the vigil beside Thirl’s bed, watching his chest rise and fall with each breath, as if at any given moment the body would change from a wounded man to a dead corpse.

“Odie ain’t too bright,” said Doc. “The man has only two more years of work to gain a pension, but decides to strike. Told me he ain’t gonna go on paying fifty cents a month to that no ‘count company League. Damn black throat. Since the rules of pension eligibility require twenty full years of service, of which Odie already has eighteen, he’s throwin’ away $1,200 a year for life to save twelve dollars. The man sleeps with his head up his ass!”

... to be continued

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