If a man aint got his dignity, well then you tell me: what’s left? If he’s desperate for work, a fella’ll do anything to get by, to feed himself and his kin, no questions asked, and damned if some boss is gonna strip him of that which makes a man stand up and not slouch in the face of those that look down on him. I tell you, I’ve pulled rocks from out this earth for many a year and then some, like a vole, like some creature of the night scuttling and scraping down below in that dark dust and even when you come up into the light of day, that dust is everywhere like a curse, it never does loosen itself from under your nails, from the creases of your elbows, even your nostrils, no matter how hard you scrub. And me and my brothers we do that work because what choice do you have, couldn’t farm the land as it’s all bought up by the bosses, couldnt type pretty letters or trade in bonds and stock certificates like them sons of rich men, nor could we build all the fancy things that folks seem to think they need since all the company brass have long since shuttered up the factories and mills, the ones that used to make Happy Meal toys and toaster ovens, steel I-beams and Go-Pro cameras, and also Roombas and air conditioners, on account of cheaper wages in faraway places like Taiwan or Tijuana, which is in Mexico. Now I don’t begrudge those folks elsewhere in the world their livelihood, but a man’s gotta eat, and dang it I remember the days when we organized and the Wobblies agitated and shouted and threw paving stones and demanded that we get paid a decent wage for a day’s labor but then those sonsabitch Pinkerton goons hired by the bosses wielded their clubs and their tommy guns and beat us down and killed a few among us and yet still we got up off of our knees.
But it never did amount to a hill of beans and we only got paid a smidgen so that some Manhattan fat-cat could buy his expensive cigars and French cognac. And then wouldn’t you know it, some of them politicians came around in their railcars decked out in Old Glory and blamed the whole mess on the colored folk, told us if we didn’t like what we earned, they’d happily truck in some fellas desperate enough to do the work for half our wages, plus grinning while they did it. But I don’t trust much that emerges from the pie-holes of politicians. I really should pull up stakes and cut my family loose from this town and start a new life somewhere west of here, but who can do that when you can hardly make ends meet and the company men take your last nickels for food, lodging & cable TV? Sometimes I listen to the rain on that galvanized roof at midnight and think of the storms that come in stronger and stronger each year, the coffee-brown waters churning up the creeks and overflowing their banks and washing away anything that resembles a dream, and they say those smokestacks are filling up the sky until it can’t hold anymore, they say the lazy-dog days of summer will get hotter and hotter until it’s like you’re sweating down in that mine only you’re actually out for a mid-day saunter, and though I tend to be skeptical of what I see on my newsfeed, I’m inclined to think they might be right as it’s been several years since we’ve had a good snow in these parts, and there arent half as many warblers in the sugar maples as there once were. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going so far as to suggest its like a canary kicking over claws-up and the gas is coming in Shaft 29 and we’ve gotta clear outta dodge because its going to blow soon, but anyhow it does make you wonder about whats going on in the atmosphere. Sometime I wish my son could do something other than pull coal from a seam, but of course, what can you do in these hills without one of those fancy degrees and anyway they say there’s new things coming like powering your smartphone by the light of the sun, and maybe they’ll figure out a way to get folks out in these parts working on that rather than some kid in Bangladesh, but I doubt it. We get forgotten in these mountains, except come election time when a passel of young folks with buttons on their jackets and well-trimmed facial hair come to lecture us and tell us why we need to pull this or that blue switch or red switch and which candidate will give you hope and which make it all great again but then they’re gone and the medical bills show up in the mailbox for those x-rays and the iron lung treatments and the tuberculosis santatorium, not to mention the Xanax and Zoloft for those depressive episodes that come with working so deep below the sun-lit grass for long shifts at minimum wage–practically an internship–and anyway you try to maintain a positive outlook and not get beaten down and sometimes you toss a baseball with your kid out in the field that’s stomped to dirt by so many boots and cleats and that feels pretty good, but boy it sure is hard not to think about how the whole shebang seems stacked against us and you want to lie down between some clean warm sheets with a woman who loves you and forget about the whole damn thing.
Image of West Virginia coal miners courtesy New York Public Library photo collection; illustration of Pinkerton guards escorting strikebreakers in Buchtel, Ohio 1884 courtesy Wikimedia Commons; photo of Tijuana and U.S. border courtesy Wikimedia Commons, photo by.