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Heavy heat hung over the holler from wall to wall on the two mountains that faced each other across a narrow creek and the railroad track. The mountains were so high and steep that there was little more than a cleavage with no valley between them. The trees had been cut, leaving black jagged stumps everywhere.
The hillsides were covered in measured rows of two- and three-room houses made of rough lumber. Only the back walls of the houses rested on the ground. The front walls, to level them with the steepness of the hills, were propped on stilts six to eight feet high. Slimy green bald areas marked places where dishwater had been thrown from kitchen doors. Tin cans rolled as far as the nearest weed patch, where they heaped and caught a glint of the sun even as rust claimed them. A huge pile of blue-black coal lay in each yard, feeding hundreds of cookstoves which filled the air with gritty black smoke.
On one of the mountains was the black gaping maw of a coal mine, its dank cold breathing of the grave. While passersby moved out of its reach, the miners, with lowered heads and stooped shoulders, entered its darkness. A slate dump slid imperceptibly toward the creek in a gray scaly sheath of thin slabs of rock. Smouldering fire and smoke seeped from its edges, a fire no rain would be able to put out.
In this narrow cleft, the heat shimmered over a path of hot black cinders that lay alongside the railroad track; it also shimmered over the creek that floated a film of slow moving coal dust glinting in oilygreens and blues. The rocks along the creek bed were a bright orangy-yellow. Their pitted surfaces, penetrated by iron and sulphur, gave them the powdery texture of crepe cloth.
The soundtrack for this nether world was a crashing, earsplitting racket made by tons of coal rolling down the mountain on the grinding gears of a conveyor until it plunged through a chute at a big tipple that straddled the railroad at the bottom. A huge iron railroad car, especially made for coal, sat beneath the chute and caught it from daylight to dark in a roaring crash of rock hitting metal.
Thick clouds of coal dust blown from this blasting inferno picked up an air current and floated off to settle on every leaf of every tree and bush it could reach. The leaves looked as if they had been brushed with gray paint by the hand of Death.
Hundreds of people were wedged in this place. The men were either in the mines or sleeping after the night shift. The women, surrounded by children, sat on porches fanning themselves in slow motion, their minds pondering—pondering only God knew what as they took in their surrealist surroundings.
There were no churches and no cemetery at this new place. The dead were shipped to relatives "back home" from where they'd come, making their last journey on the Louisville & Nashville passenger train.
This was in the dog days of August, 1930 at Corbin Glow, one of the newest and largest mining operations in southeastern Kentucky.
I sat expectantly on the narrow porch of our two-room house, waiting minute by minute for the siren to blow for the changing of the shifts in the mines. In the thick air it had a mournful wail, but its sound was the focal point of my day, all my days, in rain or shine, except in the winter when it would be dark, for the sound meant my father would be coming home. He'd left at dawn before I'd awakened.
At the sound I ran off the porch and halfway up the narrow path that led to the mines. It had been trodden into the color and hardness of concrete by thousands of weary footsteps plodding up and down, to and from the mines. I stepped off it into weeds almost as high as I was and focused my eyes on that black hole in the hillside. The men came out of it half crouching as their heads barely cleared the damp, dripping, timbered roof. In single file they began a slow descent.
They all looked alike. Coal black from head to toe, they wore the same kind of work clothes, the same canvas caps that held a brass carbide lamp fastened to its visor and the same aluminum dinner buckets, in which the bottom half held water. As they slowly filed past, I searched each black face with its white-ringed eyes, trying to identify my father. At last, a figure stepped out of line and took me by the hand. My heart leapt in happiness as I took his empty dinner bucket to carry for him and we walked home with my hand in his.
One night that summer something like a bolt of lightning struck at the supper table. It shattered the house and it changed our lives. Mother began a response to something Father said and in mid-sentence started screaming, "I can't stand another day in this place. I'm not going to live here another day. I'm not going to live here another day."
"Another day. Another day." Father's voice rose louder than hers as he mocked in anger: "You can't stand it another day. I have no day. I crawl into that goddamned black hole before daylight and half the time I crawl out of that goddamned black hole after dark and you sit here and tell me that you can't stand it another day. You don't know what the hell daylight means."
I went around the table and stood beside him. The picture he'd just painted of himself alarmed me. I buried my head in his shoulder. Every muscle in his body was tensed into an unrelenting skeleton of steel.
Across the table Mother sat with her head bowed in her hands, weeping.
She was right, we had to leave this ugly place. I went over and stood beside her. She straightened up, wiping the tears and anger from her eyes on the hem of her apron, then went to the stove and in a conciliatory manner gave Father a cup of coffee. In reconciliation he took a sip of it. The storm was over.
"All I meant to say when I got off it was that if we had another place we could have a garden and some chickens and a cow. We could eat better than we do from the company store. That's all I meant to say." She sounded apologetic.
Father stared at her, his face too pale, coal dust still clinging to his eyelashes. He was thinking. He was thinking hard. "Maybe I could find such a place. I'll ask around. We've got enough money right now if I can find the right house." He straightened up in his chair and his shoulders went back a little as the tension slowly lost its grip on his body. Mother had just handed him a key that would unlock the prison.
Father had been raised on a farm, but hated the coaxing of growing things, hated being locked into combat with insects, hated waiting patiently for rain that sometimes didn't come, or sometimes came in such torrents that it washed the crops off the steep hillsides. After his marriage following World War I, he'd given up farming to seek his fortune in the new coal mines.
Now, following the explosive exchange with Mother, he had to wait a few days for the NO WORK TOMORROW sign to appear in the bookkeeper's window at the commissary. He already knew there'd be no work because there were ten cars of coal backed up on the sidetrack. And he already knew there'd be no pay for the lost day.
He put on a clean pair of overalls and a denim shirt, getting ready to go to Letcher to look at a place one of the miners had told him about. I went to the door and asked if I could go with him.
Mother said, "No, you can't walk six miles there and back."
"Yes I can." I kept walking across the porch.
"Maybe she can," Father said, somewhat doubtfully.
For about two miles, we walked down the railroad track's elongated curves that made the road seem almost straight as it followed the creek out of the holler. Suddenly, with barely a sign of terrain change, we walked into a place so narrow that the light in it was dim. One of the mountains was pushing the railroad against the creek. The one on the other side, rising from a solid granite base, was blocking any further movement, leaving us in a narrow crevice of steel and rock.
My heart thumped, terrified that a train would come roaring through and where could we go? Father walked ahead and seldom looked back. He knew that the trains never stopped blowing on curves, but I didn't. Adding to my fear, I couldn't walk and breathe and talk at the same time on these broad ties since they were about two inches farther apart than my normal stride. I had to give a little hop and leap, first on one foot, then the other, to reach them and the exertion made it impossible to ask anything. Finally, I could hardly take another step.
As suddenly as we'd walked into this place, we stepped out of it through a narrow exit into sunlight again. I stopped in amazement. In front of my eyes a broad river was flowing serenely past this dark chasm. Low foothills on the far side had clumps of green bushes everywhere and there before me grew all the crayon flowers that I'd ever painted. They had somehow escaped the rough flat paper that I'd drawn them on and planted themselves firmly in this new and wonderful landscape.
When I turned back to the railroad, it had all but disappeared and Father with it. I could see a stretch of rail about a mile away as the track came out of a deep curve. Forcing my legs on I walked into the deep mile-long curve.
Out of reach of the river's flooding, the railroad track here was raised about ten feet. It had been dynamited out of solid rock into a curving wall a mile long and three stories high. Big trees at its top gave the cliff the appearance of ending in the sky. Its minute ledges held tufts of grass. Its crowbarred grooves were full of dead leaves and here and there a scraggly bush grew straight outward. Threading through all this were narrow, erratic seams of coal. From where I stood the hot steel rails flowed against the rock wall like molten silver.
"I need a drink of water," I called to Father, my throat so dry it could barely make a sound. "Right out here," he pointed toward the middle of the cliff without looking back. I hopped and leaped on till he finally stopped and waited for me to catch up. The water ran down a moss-covered groove in the cliff, met a little basin, stopped to overflow into a pile of mouldy leaves from last winter and disappeared under the cliff. Opening my mouth, I scooped up palmsful of cold water tasting pleasantly of tree roots and old leaves. I went back to the railroad and sat down on the end of a tie beside Father. "Are you tired?" he asked.
I didn't dare say yes. "No, I'm not tired, but my knees hurt from all this hopping and my feet hurt too." I was humiliated to hear a whimpering sound in my voice.
"Hopping? Why are you hopping?"
I explained why.
"Why don't you walk on the path?" He pointed along the river bank. From there on to where we turned off, I walked on the soft earthy path. It soothed my feet and I could hear the river moving over the big rocks in a low grinding murmur.
At last we came to a rough dirt road that turned up a small creek toward a little store. It sat perched so securely on an outcrop of rock that the wide ledges in the rock's facing were used as steps to it. Big beech trees lined the creek that flowed not ten feet away.
Inside was cool and shady. I sat in one of the big rockers, each with a thick hickory splint bottom, which circled a cold iron stove full of rusty spots. A dog, from habit, lay close to the stove. Without lifting his head, he opened both eyes wide, looked into each face and went back to sleep.
Lige Banks, the storekeeper, took Father to look at a property owned by Buck Tramer and priced at $200. Father agreed on the spot to buy the house. I stayed behind with Mrs. Banks.
Returning, Father took a Prince Albert tobacco can from his pocket, opened it up and carefully counted out $200 into the hand of Mr. Banks. Then he selected two little cans of Vienna sausages, each with a tiny key fastened to its side to open it, a box of crackers and two Coco-Colas for our lunch. He handed Mr. Banks a handful of coins.
"I don't take Corbin Glow scrip, Mr. Bailey. The company won't redeem it and I can't walk that far to trade it out."
Father was embarrassed. He'd brought only two hundred dollars in cash to pay for the house.
"I'll put it on time. You'll be coming back." Mr. Banks smiled.
Even though it was August, we ate lunch sitting around the stove. Mr. Banks made himself a thick baloney sandwich smeared with mustard, helped himself to a cold Orange Crush and joined us at the stove. He had a strange look that I hadn't seen before. He was pudgy, even his hands were pudgy. His face had a pink glow unlike any man's face I'd ever seen and there wasn't a mote of coal dust about his being.
He and Father talked of these new coal mines which were being dug in the mountainsides all over southeastern Kentucky, bringing people from farms and towns to get rich quick with this "black gold"; of how big Eastern interests were buying all the timberlands from people who could hardly read or write.
"Yes, Mr. Bailey, you're doin' the right thing coming here, gettin' on solid ground. Mining camps are hard places to live in," said Mr. Banks.
As they talked on and on, I compared his little store with its 25-pound bags of stone-ground corn meal, its big jugs of molasses and its whole peaches, canned with the pits and studded with cloves, to the company commissary's chrome-and-white enamel coolers full of meal, ice cream and pop; its big butcher's block that seemed to cut nothing but pork chops; its shelves full of cornflakes with nothing but Pet Milk to go with them; its long rows of flimsy "light bread" that, Mother said, "a dog wouldn't eat." Father would tell her, "But we black-faced bastards have to eat that or nothing."
People who'd been to Whitesburg said food cost twice as much in Corbin Glow. A bitter hatred was slowly building against the mining companies and in a very few years it would explode in dynamite and gunfire.
Father shook hands with Mr. Banks and his wife and we left, walking home more slowly. The sun had set behind the mountain of the big hot curve and in its cooler shadow we rested a time or two. My thoughts were happily on the little store and the beautiful, willowy Nancy Banks with her friendly blue eyes. She'd given me a bar of candy as we left and asked me, as she held my hand, to come back.
An icy dread suddenly overwhelmed me. We'd come to the portals of that dark crevice which was the doorway to Corbin Glow mines. I stopped, took a deep breath and walked through it without incident.
Mother had supper waiting and we gathered around the table.
"I don't want a question asked till I've finished supper." Father looked into each pair of eyes and each pair of eyes dropped to the plate. "And that means everybody," he added.
The one-course supper was over in ten minutes flat because we couldn't wait to hear all the details of our new home. Like a convict having been released after years of incarceration, Father described the world he'd just found. "It's the prettiest place on earth. You can see far off; a big level place with gardens right down in bottom lands. You'll see a storm comin' long 'fore it strikes." He turned to Mother, "They ain't a mine in sight and the leaves on the trees are as green as green can be. And they're full of birds."
"What are birds?" one of my young brothers asked.
"What are birds?" Father asked, astonished. "You've all seen pictures of birds. Now, in the next few days help your mother get packed. We're movin' Sunday." He waved us from the table.
Sunday morning the big company coal truck came early. The iron cookstove and the iron bedsteads were put in it and then everything else was thrown on top and roped down. We had barely enough belongings to fill the truck.
Mother, holding a baby, rode with Father and the driver. The rest of us, sitting in back on an old quilt, held onto the tailgate. Like refugees from a John Steinbeck novel, we set forth to "the prettiest place on earth": Letcher, Kentucky.
Posted June 1, 2012
Posted May 17, 2012
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