Monday, July 23, 2012

Coal Dust On My Feet ~ part 4

“Deanna? Where are you, honey?” Thirl twisted his head, his eyesight blurry in the dim light of his bedroom. He had a dream of himself in a coffin with pennies on his eyes. The undertaker had placed the wooden box on sawhorses in their front room. He stretched his arm down to his leg—still there—remembering what happened. He felt like he’d been sawed in half. Thirl had prepared himself for a mine disaster all his life. He wasn’t prepared for a bullet.

From his bed, he focused on the burning coal in the stove. Like the red eyes of a black dragon squatting in the middle of the front room with its tail sticking in the chimney, it blew its hot breath into the house. Sitting defiantly on its asbestos-sheathed-in-tin mat, the cast iron dragon waited for an opportunity to strike. Thirl closed his eyes again. They felt hot. His mouth was hot. He felt sick. He sensed something staring at him and turned his head slowly. On the bed beside him laid his wife’s sock monkey. It had always made him laugh. He tried to smile, but the pain wouldn’t allow it.

“Deanna, you in the kitchen?”


DeDe had kept vigil for three days, more in than out of her tiny bedroom. Preparing the oven for corn bread, she’d just fried a handful of cornmeal in her iron skillet before the batter could be poured. James Curtis would be home soon to check on his daddy. No one had eaten a bite the past three days. She had pulled herself away from Thirl’s bedside to cook something besides the pinto beans that simmered on the stove, a food offering from her neighbor, Pearle.

Hearing her husband stir, she crept in and turned on the light. One naked bulb overhead shot off a feverish discolored glow that failed to find the corners of the room. Daylight had faded and the room darkened into roundness, like standing in the bottom of a well ... or a mine.

            Thirl’s gritty face, lined with a telltale track on each cheek, gave only a hint of his agony. “You’re awake.” DeDe put on a smile she pulled from her sleeve and sat down on the bed’s edge, wiping his brow with a cool cloth. “Here, take this pill. Doc Vance said it’d help. You’ve been shot, but I suppose you know that.”

            Thirl fought an impulse to gag. Choking, he attempted to swallow the large pill.

            “Sorry, darlin’, but Doc said …”

            “Don’t care what Doc said,” he gagged again. “I can’t swallow pills … never could. You know that. And turn that damn light bulb off.”

            “Don’t get pissy with me,” she whispered. “I don’t want to be a widow just yet, so if you don’t mind you’re gonna take the pill whenever I give it to ya.”

DeDe stood and turned off the light. The glow from the front room seeped into Thirl’s bedroom as she lit a kerosene lamp and sat it by his bed on a small table. Its light barely touched Thirl’s head. But she sensed he preferred it.

            Thirl sipped at the water glass she held at his lips, then asked, “How bad is it?”

            “You’ll live. But you’re gonna limp a while.”

            “I mean the strike.”

            “Strikers cut off the town at the top of the hill. James Curtis says he’s not sure yet if there’s enough men to keep the mine open, and how many of them live out of town.”

            “Tell James Curtis to stay away from the line, it’s dangerous.”

            “Shhh. You rest.” She wiped his head again, watching his strength fade. “James is a man now. He knows how to take care of himself. You taught him well.”

            “No, honey, if he’s got any good in him, it’s from you.”

            DeDe wrung out the cloth in a chipped spatterware bowl. “Odie threw him off his farm.”

            “So Odie’s strikin’… I figured as much.”

            “It was Odie that saved your life. Drove your car to the Grille away from the danger. Hardrock and Boney were closing the place up. They brought you home. You’d lost a lot of blood.”

            “Odie was my best friend, once.”

            “I know.”

            “I should’ve taken you and James Curtis to Oregon. We could’ve bought some land with my cousin after the war. I’ve wasted my life, DeDe.”  His eyes flashed with determination not to cry.

“We don’t waste life. It wastes us, darlin’.”

~~~October 1952~~~

            Finding nearly five hundred of its workmen still available, The Elk River Coal and Lumber Company, which remained completely shut down during the first week of the strike, resumed limited operations. But resumption brought Ed Heckelbech, UMW organizer, to the picket line and the violence began again. Jonas Zirka and his pickets commanded the only road into Widen and continued to cut off non-strikers who lived outside the town. All traffic in and out ceased.

            As a warning to the few company men attempting to cross the picket line, the strikers yanked out the drivers and dynamited their empty cars. After that, any man attempting to cross the picket line found themself rolling down Widen hill inside their vehicle. A dozen strikers stood guard to pick up any company man's car, shake it, and give it good toss down the mountain.

            Odie spent his share of time on the picket line. Most nights were quiet. Only twice had he thrown rocks and bricks at cars. He’d helped to roll Delmar Tuller’s pickup down the hill but the scab had managed to limp away. The company's fruitless efforts to call the law proved the state troopers sided with the strikers. Each time they were notified of an incident they arrived at the top of Widen hill, tipped their hats to the picket line with a smile, and headed back to Charleston--reporting no disturbance. If not for the company armed guards, union sympathizers total takeover of the coal camp would've come by no surprise.

But the strikers’ biggest victory was halting the train and forcing its passengers to unload. Odie wasn’t near the car where he’d heard Zirka beat up a man and forced him at gunpoint to get off the train. Nevertheless, Odie stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest of the picketers who had dynamited the railroad trestles at Sand Fork and Robinson. He’d been part of the crew uprooting telephone posts, cutting a quarter mile of line into short pieces, and successfully isolating the town.  Widen families went hungry for the first time in over a decade as Odie and the rest of the strikers placed a firm chokehold on the coal camp.


Stepping on generations of leaves, Odie perched himself on a log with a straight shot into the switch house. Guards had been posted to prevent the entry of possible saboteurs, but it was clearly a war now. A war with no help from the law for Bradley’s company. The Attorney General and Governor had been voted into office with union votes, not company votes.

Determined to shut the mines down, the strikers hid in strategic positions. Cutting the electric was Odie’s idea. From the surrounding hilltops, rifle bullets went whining into switch houses that controlled the electric circuits into the mines. Contemplating his aim, Odie twitched as Josephine’s words shot into his mind like a silver bullet meant for his heart. She loves the boy, Odie. I weren’t but her age when I married you.

            He’d worked his wife into an early grave. It was guilt that caused him to spoil his girl and let her go off with James whenever she wanted. But he needed her at home. The place was falling apart without her. Snatching Savina away from James Curtis wasn’t going to be easy.

Savina had missed plenty of school the past year. There’d be no going back to school for her, not until the strike was over at least. Maybe not even then. She had new responsibilities now, bigger ones than high school and dances and shopping trips to Charleston.

Odie fired his last shot, taking out the electric in the mine.

Since coal could not be hauled out, the mine would close once again. Odie reached into his pocket for his tobacco pouch. He stuffed a plug into his lower lip and hid in a grove of rhododendron until darkness covered him like the walls of the mine.


“You’re from that little shithole town, Widen, right?” The man bagging groceries eyed the two men in front of him warily.

Harry Gandy, Joseph Bradley’s operations boss, and Red King, loyal company man, found an old logging trail over the mountain and managed to get to Charleston to buy food, filling Harry’s car to the brim.

            “Yeah,” said Red. “We’re from Widen.”

            “What you doin’ buyin’ groceries here?”

“We’re on vacation, just thought we’d stock up on the way to the beach.” Harry tipped his hat and snickered as Red paid the bill.

The carload of food had to be unloaded at the first blown-out bridge by human chain like a bucket brigade passing bags of flour, beans, and bacon from hand to hand. Filling a railroad motor coach that had luckily been left in operating condition between the two blasted bridges, each man and woman worked in hushed solidarity, spilling not one word or grocery sack between them.

At the next destroyed bridge, they repeated the same process before the daily shipment finished its journey into Widen. At both transfer points the protective rifles of company guards pointed in every direction. Over the weeks, Harry Gandy continued to sneak in carloads of food, unloading, passing contents hand to hand, and always under the watchful eyes of a man with a high-powered rifle in his hands.


            Thirl stood by and grinned while townsfolk, the non-strikers, filled their wheelbarrows and sacks with groceries. Taking nothing for himself, he thanked God for the oversized vegetable garden his wife insisted she grow every year. A garden that took up a third of the back yard. And he was grateful for the fruit cellar she’d made him dig years ago. He’d been quarrelsome and nearly refused.

I’ve dug enough dirt for Bradley, I don’t need to be doin’ it in my own yard. It shamed him to think how contrary he’d been. She always knew things he didn’t.

Thankful for the hog DeDe made him butcher every year, Thirl had also stopped complaining about the chickens in the back yard behind several feet of chicken wire. Chickens, as far as he was concerned, were on a level not much higher than rats. He preferred deer meat and squirrel. But the store no longer stocked eggs. Collecting them from DeDe's hens that morning, he stopped complaining about anything to do with his wife.

DeDe’s pantry was full of home-canned jars of raspberry and blackberry jams and jellies, pickled beans and corn. His house had turned into a small eatery. She fed those most desperate. Her breakfasts of bacon, eggs, and biscuits with sorghum molasses filled the bellies of many company men and their families over the next few months. Like angels singing in the rafters, tin forks and knives rang against plates, and the sound of chairs pulled acrossed the worn linoleum filled the tiny kitchen most mornings.

At sunrise, the smell of bacon and coffee drifted into his bedroom along with the mournful songs of the Carter Family on the radio. Thirl knew he was lucky he was to have her. Even propped up against the refrigerator with her arms crossed watching people eat, she looked fetching. He sipped his coffee and gazed at the freckle on her forehead beneath the zigzag part of her hair. Her doe eyes melted him, made his chest and brain feel like corn mush. As the day wore on, the sensation hardened to a prickling along his spine, then to a low hum in his abdomen. He’d thought about her cooking and he thought about her naked—in equal amounts of time.

She was his gift from God. Because she knew things. Odd things. It wasn’t the first time his wife had told him of a coming flood or the imminent death of a healthy neighbor. She’d predicted a famine the year before. And then there was the day DeDe dropped her dusty beans on the porch because she’d ‘seen’ Josephine fall dead in her kitchen, gripping her heart over five miles away, Thirl never doubted her again. But he was never sure if she knew how much he loved her.

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