Saturday, July 01, 2006



Skinny got me the job that summer. He heard a rumor that the coal company was going to hire more truck drivers for the stripping operation.

"They're going to hire a lot of drivers," Skinny tells me. "So we should try to get the jobs."

"Do you think they’ll hire us?" I asked.

"Sure, why not."

"I don’t even have a drivers license for a car," I said.

"You don’t need a license for driving off the roads."

"Shit you don’t."

"You don’t."

So one day we went to where the trucks were parked, near the lower level of the first section of the colliery, where the slate side-dumpers were loaded and where the showers were and the lamp shanty. We were going to try to see how they felt by sitting in them and see if the gear shift and the steering wheel were right. They were huge trucks, Euclids, but the cabs were locked and so all we could do was to climb up on them and look inside. I was amazed to see that the tires were as tall as me and I was scared that we would get the job and I would not be able to handle the truck and do the double clutching needed for shifting, especially when going up a hill and having to down shift. In the winter when the trucks came by the road in front of our house, the engines roared as they crept up the hill. We laughed whenever a driver had to shift and he did it too slow and the gears ground and made a loud noise.

"Grind me a pound," we would all shout at the driver as he sometimes had to stop the truck to get it into first gear and sometimes he had to back down the hill and start over.

But Skinny was not worried.

"They’re automatic," Skinny assured me. But I was still relieved when we did not get the jobs. They were not automatic.

Skinny felt bad about not getting me a job driving one of the trucks. He had been so sure that we would get the jobs.

"I’ll get you a job," he said to me assuredly.

"Don’t worry," I told him. "It doesn’t matter that much."

"No, I’ll get you a job."

So Skinny found out from Perniski son-in-law that he was going to start the coal hole again and needed two workers. He was old and retired and lived with his daughter. She was married to a trucker who owned several trucks that carried coal from the coal holes to the colliery. The coal hole we worked in had been opened by Perniski years before and was worked out, so that you could not make a living mining what coal remained. But there was still enough left for a small operation. It was just Perniski and me as inside men and Skinny the hoist man for a time and then Skinny left.

Skinny had worked for Perniski's son-in-law driving one of the trucks for a short time. Skinny and I went to see him at his home one evening and he told us to come to the coal hole the next day.

"We're all set now, " Skinny said. "You can be the hoist man and I’ll work inside." Skinny began teaching me how to run the hoist and how to know when the buggy was off the track and when the buggy was all the way up and when it was all the way down and all the codes for the bell and when to oil and grease the cable and the winch. He had run a hoisting machine for another coal hole one summer.

After only a few days, I was not happy with the job. It required long hours of just sitting, waiting for the buggy to be filled and decided that he should be the hoist man and I would be the inside man. Perniski didn't care. And then, Skinny got a job driving a truck for someone else and he left us.

"I'll get a replacement," he promised.

He showed up for work the next day. He was an older guy and had been a hoist man somewhere else.

"I don’t like him," Perniski said, but he hired him anyway.

"Why?" I asked

"I just don’t like him."

The hoisting was done using a car, jacked up off the ground with the rear axles welded together so that the wheels did not just spin as if it was on an icy roadway. Just one wheel was used for the hoisting. One of the back wheels was joined to a heavy winch and provided the energy needed to hoist the coal car up the steep slope and to also send men and timber into the mine. A bell system was used to signal the type of operation needed. One continuous ring, as an emergency signal to stop the buggy, seven for men coming up, two for a full buggy, three for timber, and so on. The bell was powered by the car battery and activated by touching bare wires together at the bottom of the mine for the appropriate number of rings, or at the slant chute or anywhere along the slope. The wires ran the length of the slope and were nailed or wrapped around the timbers. Often times the wires would be corroded from the sulfurous water and new pieces had to be spliced in.

Mr. Perniski was very careful about safety while I was in the mine, just as he probably was for Skinny. I helped drill the holes for the blasting while he prepared the blasting caps and the dynamite. Five holes were usually drilled in the face of the coal seam, two on top, two on the bottom and one in the center. The sequence for blasting was always the same. First the center hole, then the bottom holes and then the top two. The holes were drilled by hand with a brace and bit that consisted of a threaded holder that was attached to a long steel bar driven into the vein of coal and the drill bit shank was threaded and the threaded end clamped into the holder and the brace assembly turned and the bit cut the hole and as the hole got deeper, pieces were added to the assembly. The effort was not too difficult, but it took a long time.

I was never allowed to handle the dynamite or the blasting caps. I always left the face of the gangway while he set the fuses. He cut the length of the fuse wire to make the sequence and lighted the fuses in the correct order. I helped make the dirt bags that were packed into the hole after the dynamite was in, and then I went up to one of the slant chutes that were used during the ‘robbing out ‘ phase and waited there in the dark, quiet chute surrounded by creaking timbers. And after a while, I could hear Perniski coming up the slope, his heavy breathing breaking the silence, as he crawled up quickly and joined me in the old slant chute. I remember thinking he moved fast for an old man. We waited there quietly and listened, counting the number of blasts to make sure they all fired. The blasts were not loud, but they shook the ground. We knew the number of shots and were careful about counting them as they went off, sometimes close together.

"There," he would say, "that was the last one." He seemed relieved that they had all fired. You could smell the smoke and the sharp sulfur odor as the smoke drifted up the slope.

He returned first to the gangway face after the blasting and checked to see if everything was okay. Then he'd go up into the old breast works and check to see if the coal vein and the roof were still solid after the blast. And sometimes he broke some of the loose coal away and it came crashing down the breast works and into the boards that were part of the old chute system. I could just see a small ray of light and hear him breathe as he poked the coal vein to break away any loose pieces. That was considered good coal, since we did not have to blast to get it and often it was closer to the slope and I did not have to wheel it as far.

"Okay," he would say climbing down, clutching the old timbers for support., "It’s all okay."

I loaded the wheelbarrow and pushed the coal out to the slope over the roadbed made from old two-by-ten oak planks, then dumped it into the car, or ‘buggy’ as we called it, and when it was full, I signaled the hoistman to take the buggy up.

We counted the number of buggies, as the day went by, to see how many truck loads of coal we had dug. If we needed just one or two more to make a full truck load, we would continue, since the truckers came sometimes after we had gone home and filled their truck for the next morning’s work.

The gangway or tunnel was long and dark, lit only by the small light from the carbide lamp mounted on the hard hats that we wore. An extra lamp was used at the gangway face to provide more light and was hooked to one of the timbers. The carbide had to be replenished frequently. The bottom part which held the carbide screwed off, and the old carbide was dumped out and fresh carbide put in and water added to the upper compartment. Then the lamp was screwed back together and the water valve adjusted so it just dripped a little into the carbide to make the light just bright enough. And other water, from the roof, dripped slowly, drop by drop and the air was humid and cool and not dusty, since the water made it damp. We brought our own water for drinking, glass jugs mostly that were kept near the face, but back far enough to be out of danger of getting broken. The water we drank always had a strong taste, or maybe it was the smell of the sulfur in the air from the dynamite blasts, or the carbide smell, but it tasted strange as you drank it. It was always cool since the mine was always cool.

I was in complete darkness except for the light given off by my carbide lamp as I pushed the wheelbarrow along the plank road. And then slowly, the light from either his lamp or the extra lamp would show dull yellow and flit back and forth as he worked in the distance and get brighter as I got near the face of the gangway. And there was not much talking in the crowded gangway face, just the heavy breathing of heavy work. It was cool in the coal hole, and even in summer, you needed a shirt and jacket.

Perniski used a large metal bar and a pick to break the coal from the face of the vein, and I shoveled it into the wheelbarrow. He timbered the gangway as we advanced, while I filled and pushed the wheelbarrow along the darkened tunnel. And as we moved into the vein of coal, we placed large sheets of iron on the floor of the gangway to help in shoveling the coal. And sometimes he would just be sitting when I got back from a trip to the buggy, and he would say: "Time for a break."
And I was glad he said that and sat down and drank some water, or just rested until he was ready to start again.

"Mom okay?" he occasionally asked as we sat and rested.


"And pop working?"


That was all he usually asked. It seemed enough for him, the world was good if mom was okay and pop was working.

And the timbers in the tunnel creaked as I went by with the wheelbarrow for the long distance to the face of the mine. An occasional drop of water hitting my hard hat or dropping on my shoulder or back, the cold water pinching. And Perniski would say that it is a good sign if the timbers are creaking.

"It is good when they creak," he would say. "You worry when there is no sound."
Some of the timbers were new and fresh, that we had cut that summer in the woods near the coal hole, and some of the timbers were old and dark and wet from the drops of water, since they had been in the mine since it was started years earlier.

At the top of the coal hole a large holding chute was made from timbers cut in the nearby woods and slabs, which were the first cuts from the logs with the bark still on them, which came from the small saw mills that the farmers had for clearing timber from their lands. These were used as sheeting boards to form the chute and the bottom I was lined with large steel plates. The buggy was built to automatically open when it came to the top, and the coal would pour out and into the chute and the hoist man would then check to see if it was all okay after it emptied, and then he'd close the back and send it back down. But often the buggy would jump the tracks if it was sent down too fast, or pulled up too fast or too erratically.

In the morning, both Perniski and I rode the buggy down into the coal hole and back out in the late afternoon. Sometimes I rode the bridle, but most often I was told to go in the buggy, while he rode the bridle. The bridle was the steel cable that was wound around the buggy to provide support and to make a place to connect the cable that pulled it out of the mine. The buggy was large enough for two people. It was two or three feet high and three feet wide and six feet long and was built from heavy oak boards held together with heavy steel bands. The back two thirds had a top and the front was open, where the coal was dumped in, and the back was hinged, and it would flap open when it reached the top of the holding chute.

You lay in the buggy with your feet and legs stretched out and your upper body at the back, where the bridle was. There was room to lay on your side if you needed space and sometimes we did when we took small logs or boards or wedges or dynamite with us on the morning trip if Perniski needed them for timbering or patch work that needed repair in the roof of the gangway. The hoist man made sure the buggy went down slowly and evenly, without a jerk, and if you looked back you could see the light fade as the buggy descended and the opening get smaller.

We had everything we needed with us, our water and lunch, though sometimes lunch would come later. His wife would send his lunch to the coal hole and the hoist man would send it down. He'd use a signal to let us know that something was in the buggy for us. Sometimes we did not light our lamps until we were inside, and the darkness ahead was finally matched by the darkness behind us as the buggy descended into the coal hole.

We'd signal when we'd need the timbers for timbering, and the hoist man would put them into the buggy and send them down. Perniski laid out the timbers in the morning, before we went into the mine, and told the hoist man which ones were to be sent and in what order.

But sometimes I would have to go to the surface to bring timbers down, special timbers that Perniski needed, putting them in the buggy and riding the bridle as the buggy went back into the mine and holding onto the timbers as the buggy went down and the hoist man let the buggy go faster than it should, just to scare me. And once, when I tried to ring seven times to signal that there was a man on the buggy, so the hoist man would stop the buggy sooner and be careful in bringing it up, the signal didn't work. And I got out of the buggy and signaled again and still it didn’t work and so I tried getting out of the buggy again and it started up and I was caught there on the tracks with the buggy climbing and the rope, the steel cable, between my legs and the frayed ends of the cable tearing my overalls and I tried to move way, and then fell, luckily into the buggy and was safe but scared and trembling and relieved that I was safe and had no cuts or bruises except for some scratch marks on my legs and inner thighs where the cable hit my skin. But there was no bleeding just bruises. And at the top I asked the hoistman what went wrong and he told me that he had fallen asleep and did not hear the bell.

My overalls were ruined but I found another pair in the hoist shanty and used that pair and threw the other one away.

"I’ll buy you a new pair," the hoist man said. "Just as soon as we get paid."

"It’s okay," I said, glad that I did not get hurt.

"No, no, I’ll buy you a new pair," he went on.

Perniski was angry when he found out about it. "Goddamn, fell asleep. I don't like him. Goddamn fell asleep."

We called it a day. And that evening or the next day, my father heard about the accident from Perniski and then it was over, like a small storm that comes and goes. I continued working, apologies came for days from the hoist man and from Perniski and the hoist man promised never to do that again and promised a new pair of overalls that never came.

"You okay?" my father asked.


"Perniski told me about it."

"You okay?" he repeated


"You must be careful with the buggy when he is hoisting," he said, meaning the hoist man.

We wore carbide lamps for light, and hard hats for safety when we were in the mine. When we blasted, we ate our lunches up in the slant chute, Perniski with his one or two remaining teeth, chewing the hard bread and bologna and drinking his still warm coffee, all neatly packed in a black metal lunch bucket with the thermos jug full of coffee, full of cream and sugar, and offering me some. And my lunch packed in a brown paper bag. We always tried to blast late in the day so the smoke and dust would settle and clear out by morning. But sometimes we blasted in the late morning and after we ate our lunch, the smoke would clear enough for us to continue working.

The roof constantly dripped water, small amounts that did not bother us, but it collected in the bottom of the slope and sometimes the buggy got wet from being in the sump. The slope went deeper, but was filled with water. Perniski said that there was another gangway deeper than the one we were working, one that he had worked in long ago. The buggy sort of floated as it settled into the water, and the hoist man knew from the amount of cable that was out that the buggy was at the bottom. Some timbers had been laid across the track to stop the buggy, but the water had filled up so that they could not be seen, and the water helped stop the buggy.

During the summer, we would often spend a day in the nearby woods cutting timber. Perniski marked the trees he thought best for timbering and small enough for us to handle. We cut the trees with a large crosscut saw, he on one end and me on the other, and I trimmed the tree to length with an ax, where he had marked it. And we both carried them out to the side of the woods, along a dirt road and waited for the trucker to come and take them to the coal hole. And the trucker always came, since he was Perniski's son-in-law. He came late in the day when he had finished all his trips to town. Perniski and I loaded the timbers into the truck and rode back to the coal hole.

Perniski did the timbering. I helped hold the timbers while he adjusted them and measured them, and then he chopped the timbers flat for the post and bar method he used. And I'd dig the holes to set them in, in the floor of the gangway. He finished the final work with small logs or boards or wedges, hammering them into place so that the timbers would not come loose. I could sometimes hear him hammering in the gangway as I pushed the wheelbarrow along the plank road. The road with a small ditch on one side for the water drippings to run off.

The truckers came and took the coal to the small collieries and each time, they gave a chit or slip to the hoist man. And late each Friday afternoon, after the last load was taken, the trucker returned with the week’s money in a small envelope. We waited patiently for him to return as we sat near the holding chute. Perniski would throw stones in a small puddle of water that collected from either the rain or the drippings from the wet coal as the buggy settled in the wet sump at the bottom of the slope.

"You see, that is just like a woman. You cannot tell if anybody was there before you," he said when the ripples had died down.

"Is that what you found out, Perniski?" the hoist man kids him.

"Yes, you will see, I am right."

"You can never tell. Like the water."

And sometimes the hoist man told him things that were wrong with the tracks or the chute or the shanty, and Perniski would fix whatever was wrong after we left for the day or sometimes on the weekends. He had made the buggy and laid the tracks and started the coal hole.

He was also working on a buggy for someone else. He worked on it in his backyard under the oak trees. He was always there in the early evenings, working on the buggy.
I walked to work, to the coal hole, and went by his house early in the morning, but he was never there, he was always at work. The hoist man and I, were not so punctual, especially the hoist man, who was never on time.
Perniski never talked about mining or his family or the old country. He was quiet, sometimes still drinking the last bit of coffee from the thermos jug in the late afternoon.

The three of us sat there, on the ground, in the warm summer air, waiting for the trucker to come. Perniski sometimes throwing stones in the small puddles, and the hoistman and me just sitting there, tired and dirty and the warm sun good. And then the trucker came and gave us the small envelope, and Perniski divided the money. He counted it all out giving each of us our share, and keeping some extra for the expense money for the dynamite and caps and fuses and gas and grease and oil for the hoist and slabs for the holding chute.

Why he worked, I never did know. Perhaps it was for fun. He lived with his daughter and probably did not need the money, except for a bit of independence.

I left the coal hole in late August to start football practice and then school, and Perniski was disappointed. He wanted to continue the work. He talked to my father about it.

"Old man Perniski was here today," my father said one day when I came home from football practice.

"What did he want?" I ask.

"He wants to know why you are quitting."

"To go back to school," I interrupt.

"I told him that, but he doesn’t understand why you can’t work till school starts."

"Did you tell him about my going out for football?"

"He doesn’t understand football. He just shook his head."

"He can find someone else."

"He said you were a good worker."

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