Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Coal Miner's Granddaughter Remembers

Wash day at Grandma King's house was long and grueling, especially in the winter. I still recall the smell of Grandpa's wet clothes. The stench of the mine refused to budge from the heavy denim. This picture threw me back to those wash days ... when life was simple ... when I was a bitty girl who played among the wet sheets and blue denim hanging on the line.

I loved those days, and my coal mining grandpa. The picture above was taken long before he walked hunched over from working years in the mines. I was born a coal miner’s granddaughter. That fact inspired the story COAL DUST ON MY FEET. I never dreamed one day I would write about Widen, West Virginia. The town that had so haunted my childhood was once involved in a reign of terror between labor and management that has been said to be the longest and most violent coal strike in the history of our country. As a child, I was only privy to bits and pieces of these stories.

I dug deep into the crevices of my memory. I tunneled through pages of old picture albums Daddy and Mama kept stored away for years, and found what I was looking for. My grandparent’s wedding photo. Looking at it, I realized the miners of West Virginia and their children didn’t romanticize their lives. They lived them, surviving the best they could. The outside world didn’t exist much past an occasional radio program or newspaper article. For many years, time stood still in the hollers and mountains around Clay County. Life for my grandpa, Troy Jennings King, consisted of his wife Gussie, five children, and a job … mining coal for the Elk River Coal and Lumber Company.

As a writer, I returned to West Virginia, to Widen, and immediately began to develop a powerful attachment to the place. Over the next few months I learned more about the town, and discovered that my family had deep roots there. Several generations of Kings and Samples were born and lived in Clay County, all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

A short time later, I learned of the role my grandpa played in the Strike of 1952, siding with the company that had been loyal to him through the Depression. Grandpa always said, "We Hardshell Baptists don't sell our souls that easy." But the family was split on both sides.

COAL DUST ON MY FEET is a very real story … in some ways. The strike did happen. Jack Hamrick, Ed Heckelbech, Bill Blizzard, Charles Frame, John Lewis, Jennings Roscoe Bail, Governor Marland, and Joseph Bradley were real people who either lived in or near Widen, and were associated with the strike. Otherwise, the story and remaining characters are fictional, created from my imagination purely for storytelling purposes. But the violence from September 1952 to Christmas Eve of 1953 is legendary, and the men who were killed and maimed live on in the memories of their families to this day.

Families were torn apart, cousin against cousin, father against son—and the union, though it failed to break the back of the company, changed things. Eventually, the company closed its doors. In its day, 3,000 people lived in the coal camp of Widen. Today, there are less than 200. The town folded up except for the post office and a few that refused to leave—some of them are my relatives.

From these threads of family history, COAL DUST ON MY FEET was woven. It is a tale of love and betrayal, forbidden passions and long-buried secrets, of one woman’s struggle with her heritage and with her God—and the ancient bridge where the real and the supernatural meet.

But most intriguing to me personally as I wrote this story was the possibility that I had come by my stubbornness genes honestly, and that I was more like my grandparents than I ever dared to think. I dedicated this story to them.

In the coming days, I'll post excerpts from COAL DUST ON MY FEET, one of my favorites from Southern Fried Women. I hope you enjoy it.

Blessings to you and yours.

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