Coal and its Discontents

Moran’s grandfather, John W. Cunningham (1888-1942), was killed in the mines on Saint Patrick’s Day

by Edward Moran

they’d already angled the coal chutes down into our cellar
when we shouted from upstairs Stop! our bodies are mumbly and unrhymed
don’t you see how they’re trapped?
mute in that one-two meter, hushed suffocator of lament?
oh enough of mutilation, let the coal flow free,
coal, our dark engenderer of blue bitter smoulder:
ooze to shard to palm to ash, and maybe even a captive diamond.


When I was a youngster, we still rose, ate, slept, and buried our dead to the keening of the colliery whistle. You turned to the front pages of the Wilkes-Barre Record not for the weather report or radio listings but for the daily listing of “idle” and “working” breakers. Those who today get their heat by mindlessly flicking a thermostat cannot grasp the deeply textured life that coal once demanded.

My grandfather perished in a coal mining accident on St Patricks Day, 1942—a hushed catastrophe that forever afterward cast a pall of grief over our ancestral festivities, with shamrocks shrouded in black bunting. As a child in the 1950s I was often jolted out of sleep by the rumbling of coal coals in the tunnels under my home. Or worse, by nightmares of my grandfather fallen motionless in his black pit. I could soothe myself only by lying on my side and clasping my hands under my ear until the steady thump-thump-thump eased me back to sleep.

The thumping, of course, was my own heartbeat, but back then I imagined the sound was external to me. I was rock-sure it emanated from the hulking structure a few blocks away, at the corner of Hazle and Stanton streets. Rising on that site was a five-story-high spectre of gearshafts and cables and rotting timbers that was confected to pump air into the mine tunnels. It was a scary sight: whenever my mother and I took the streetcar downtown, I cowered under the seat as we passed that corner, frightened of my own heartbeat.

Wilkes-Barre in those postwar days still resonated to a symphony of industrial bravado, what with the steady whirr of sewing machines in the dress factories, the dissonant thrashing of looms in Funke’s lace mill,  the clacking of the drill presses at the Hazard wire factory. Such is the staccato of coal country: indistinguishable from a child’s heartbeat, the beat of a different drummer, in the key of C (for coal), without ornamentation.

Those who do not grow up here cannot understand the pervasiveness of coal, how it gets beneath your fingernails, creeps into your dreams, shapes your playtimes, orders your days. Carbon underfoot is the somber sign of a tragic human drama, a drama of woundedness, for anthracite does not yield its warmth and life without demanding the lives and lungs of men and boys and the lamentation of widows. The bards of anthracite country know that carbon, the very stuff of organic life, is the most unyielding of elements. In coaltowns where we sing our songs, we do so atop a vast storehouse of compression, where vital, exuberant energies from millions of years of existence are compressed, wound tight as a helix or mainspring, ready to uncoil at pluck of pen or pickaxe or piano key.

You instinctively know that the shiny black stuff of life, the stuff that warms your winters and feeds your family is, after all, the product of decay, of eons of decay, and that you, at the pinnacle of the carbon-chain, are part of that foulness. In coal country, everyone is of the mines, even if not in them. For people of coal, the ground can give way under you at any moment, swallowing you up, and your house and your neighbor and your neighbor’s wife—and your grandfather. or the mountains of culm and slag can come rushing down on you, burying you in their leavings.

. . .

A decade ago, I visited the Welsh village of Aberfan, buried under a collapsing culm bank not unlike those that surrounded us in Wilkes-Barre. It brought to mind the suffocation that the children of coal experienced in a place where neither church nor state could offer safe harbor. It was only this year that I could express this in the form of a villanelle.

THAT NIGHT WE PRAYED FOR ABERFAN

That night we prayed for Aberfan,
For suffocated children there,
I knelt beside old Father Don.

Who set his burning coal upon
My slurring tongue in fretful prayer,
That night we prayed for Aberfan.

In stifling ash that clouded dawn,
With unclean lips I pled for air,
I knelt beside old Father Don.

His prayers, my boyish prayers called on
The Lord of Torrents in despair
That night we prayed for Aberfan.

I choked on my eleison
For broken boys, all whelmed and bare
I knelt beside old Father Don.

Who from his millstone preyed upon
Our sunken limbs entangled there
That night we prayed for Aberfan
I knelt beside old Father Don.

. . .

There was a photograph of my grandfather atop the mahogany upright piano in the front parlor of my childhood home on Hazle Street. As a child, whenever I playfully banged on the keys, I favored the deep-throated bass sounds at the left side, under his picture, because I imagined the low, booming notes to be like the rumbling of the mine cars under our feet. Many were the days when I would offer impromptu concerts in my grandfather’s honor, perhaps trying to contact the dead through percussion, as drummers will.

As the mines and railroads closed, and we were forced to move from house to hovel, we kept the piano, no matter how desperate things got. It was our altar, our tokonoma, the repository of ancestral memory and aspiration. Other pieces of furniture might be hocked, or burned for heat, but the piano endured, our lone symbol of hope—even though it was perpetually out of pitch, obviously because my family could never afford to have a tuner come in.

And it was out of pitch not only because we couldn’t afford a piano tuner. But over the decades, it sank in to me like a slow mine squeeze that the piano was never tuned because it didn’t need to be tuned. It was perfect as it was, perfect in its own flaw, pitched just as our townscape of coal breakers and culm banks were pitched in an arc of seamless dissonance. Pitch means “pitch dark,” too, as were the mines that had devoured my grandfather. You can imagine how cacophonous my childish poundings must have sounded on that pathetic instrument. But as I banged on the bass keys, I knew I was conjuring up the vibrato of grandfather’s footfalls in the kitchen, a shade returned from the inferno beneath.

There is a queer cosmology to coal country, this black hole from which no light is permitted to escape, so distorted it is by the gravity of despair. There is an all-pervasive sense that the self can be extinguished here without warning. In a flash, the oxygen can vanish from your air, taking your breath away as you sleep in front of an ill-banked stove. But perhaps more insidious is the mine squeeze. This is a slow shifting of the earth underfoot that brings a quieter catastrophe to daily living. Sometimes you’d wake up and find that the steps to your cellar had pulled an inch or two away from the wall, or that a small sinkhole had developed in your back yard. My high school in Ashley had to be closed on a couple of occasions because a squeeze had happened under the building, warping the floorboards and windowsills. During those Cold War days, as we crouched under our desks during air-raid drills, we suffered a double whammy of impending doom: from the earth below and now from the skies above. Would we be done in by the roar of jets above or the shifting of coal seams below?

This queer cosmology perhaps explains why the children and grandchildren of coal seek their salvation these days in demagogues who promise a return to the old fossil-fuel economy. The ruling classes in America today simply can’t fathom the precariousness of selfhood experienced by people of coal. Notions of class and self-identity in America have long been forged in far-different environments: the ivory towers of academe venues and corporate boardrooms far from the ebonied undercurrents of collapsing tunnels or strip-mined souls. Academics, politicians, and  technocrats alike have failed to appreciate the notion that class—as much as race, gender, or sexual orientation—is a significant piece in the American puzzle: that the mine squeeze can also pinch the spirit and wither the aspirations of people, pitting them  against each other in an either-or zero-sum game.

Or sometimes you’d wake up and find that your father or uncle or cousin had been squeezed out of a job, laid off as the mines closed, victims of flooding and a shifting economy. Sometimes, on a cold winter’s night, your father would come home with pockets bulging and you knew he had been able to elude the railroad police while harvesting the coal that had fallen off the gondolas as they trundled through the rail yards. You squeezed your eyes shut and pretended not to notice that your Dad was a much-derided coal picker, but you were glad for his gleanage when the mercury plummeted, for you could stay up and do your homework without freezing.

The children of coal thus learn to live in a liminal world, on the fringes of two cultures, shunned by both and never at home in either. If we seek the life of the mind over the life of the mine, it is at a great cost: we banish ourselves from our own culture, knowing that the culture of academe will not welcome us without the accumulation of cultural capital that makes a university campus as hazardous for us to navigate as a subterranean coal vein. Rootless, deracinated, some of us die or go mad in the process. Some of us, exhausted, remain in the liminal world, forever seeing both sides, feeding from both sides, accepting our fate: exile in a kind of limbo in between.

Years later, in New York, secure in my affectional orientation, I learned there was an establishment in the lower West Side called the Mineshaft, into which men descended nightly to mine their carnal appetites in a splurge of Whitmanian adhesiveness. I never succumbed to the temptation of going there: it was mime—not mine. To my sensibility, this Mineshaft was nothing more than a theme park, a feeble attempt at ersatz Gemeinschaft that welcomed thrill-seeker for a night of sensual slumming. It was nothing more than a pale simulacrum of the real mineshafts that devoured the young men of coal country, and my grandfather, in a perpetual orgy of Moloch.

When you grow up with mineshafts underfoot, there is no need to role-play at ruggedness or rage. I hate how the Pinkertons hunted down my Molly Maguire forebears and hanged them by the neck in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville. I hate the pillar robbing and the burning culm and George Baer’s notions of Christian duty, and the mine bosses, and the acid stigmata that mining has left in its wake. I hate all the history, that in the end, in my lifetime, sent the twelve martyrs of Knox to their watery demise, which not even all the perfumes of the Susquehanna could make sweet.

I hate all these things because they are laid on the flesh of the fresh youngmen of coaltowns everywhere who have been born within heirshot of the colliery. We who can never escape coal’s peculiar hormones. While kids elsewhere carried marbles or dimes in their pockets, our treasures might be pieces of coal that, when split-crackled in the fire would reveal a skull, coals that would glow white hot in the furnaces of youth only to be cast out as ash. Our dreams are not so much deferred as half-dreamt. And so we become fearful men, favoring the ash over the glow as we turn to carburetors and drink and wives.


‍© 2020 by Edward Moran

An earlier version of this essay was included in Edward Moran’s unpublished full-length book manuscript, Red Letter Day, which was one of ten finalists out of 2,400 entries nationwide in the 2014 Huffington Post/AARP Post50 memoir-writing competition.

Born in Wilkes-Barre, Edward Moran grew up in a working-class family and graduated from the former St Leo’s High School in Ashley.

Also by Edward Moran: On Suffocation

4 comments

  1. Marvelous prose verging on free verse poetry. I would pay good money for anything this gentleman publishes. He catches the essential soul of the Anthracite region impeccably. Both my grandfathers were miners and my Mom’s father was missing two fingers.

    Like

  2. John Popalis · ·

    This excerpt hits home with the subtlety of a whistle announcing the maiming or death of a friend or relative. I was a native of Shenandoah Pa. which still sits atop a massive seam of coal. The town itself is like so many of the residents, worn out, tired and waiting for the curtain to fall.
    My grandfather who died four years before I was born was killed in a rush of coal, suffocated by the very thing that helped support his family. My Uncle Jerome passed away several years before in similar circumstances. Coal has touched almost everyone in the coalfields, imprinting character and faith as well as submission and dread. For everything that the black curse has taken away, it gives it’s people strength.

    Like

  3. Phyllis Wright Ferry · ·

    We have all had the experiences offered by the writer, even up to my own childhood when the coal company was required to “raise our house” due to settlement. They did, after all, own the ground beneath us. My forbears suffered the cause of the industrial revolution by suffocation at Avondale, loss of an arm in the mines after returning from the Civil War and my father a broken jaw from fallen timbers, not to mention the miner’s asthma that visited every miner. The cause of the workers will never leave my psyche. I look at the mansions of the coal barons with jaded eyes.

    Like

  4. John Drury · ·

    Hi Ed,

    We who know you well, continue to marvel at your gift. The sensitivity and poignancy in the message from your own personal history, your recollections, the dreadfulness of the immigrant work day, the shared poverty of a particular segment of humanity and the expressions of homelessness are all part of your testimony.

    But alas what has changed since those days? What will change the circumstances of what you reveal; On a personal level an escape through education?, a new emperor?, a socialist state?, defeat of corporate capitalism?, a return to collective decency? Or getting down to basics perhaps we are left with prefrontal lobotomies or cauterizations of the right amygdala of the Conservatives?

    Then again, heterogeneity may render us just…stuck.

    Hope all is well,
    John

    Like

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: