A Tour Of Duty





GORDONVILLE – Sofia, well, she says what she means and means what she says.

Even before she could talk, she would find ways to get her message across, whether it was throwing her head back to get attention or making a face and shaking her head no when she didn’t like the spoonful of baby food coming her way.

Every teacher, from preschool to the present, has praised her verbal expression skills and marveled at her vast vocabulary.

Not to brag – as balance, she’s still a klutz who bangs her head on something at least once a day – but this is a recorded fact.

But she’s still a 7-year-old little girl, so she is not yet ready to deliver a summation before the Supreme Court (although her rationale would likely make more sense than some of what is passing for attempts at Constitutional interpretations these days).

Example: She told me yesterday that I’m “banded” – instead of “banned” — from using Facebook, or the computer today (I’m sneaking this in before the princess arises).

I am also trying to break her early from the lazy habit of overusing words like “hate” and “love” and “great.”

“You don’t ‘hate’ this episode of ‘The Waltons,’” I’ll explain, as if I’m Grandpa Walton himself. “You dislike it.”

“You don’t ‘love’ – or ‘totally love’ – a game on the iPad, you really like it a lot,” I’ll tell her. “The movie you just saw wasn’t ‘great,’ but it was ‘good’ or maybe even ‘very good,’”

And so on.

Does it sink in?

I’d like to think so, but who knows?

Sometimes you have to be shown.

And sometimes you have to set an example.

Looking in the mirror, often the hardest viewpoint of the day, I see someone who holds words – and their usage – dear and who is also as guilty as charged for overdoing it for the sake of drama.

For some reason — probably my time as a union “activist,” when I once led a chant of “used to be a gold mine, now it’s a coal mine” with a megaphone — I became prone to coal mine analogies.

It’s not that it’s wrong, off-hand. Many coal miners, past and present, might get a warm-fuzzy being remembered and included.

But there is a fine line between being poignant and cavalier.

When I left what was a figuratively poisonous work environment more than a year back, I told people it was like breathing in fresh air after years working in the coal mines and that it was going to clear up my case of black lung.

Yeah, right, G2.

In researching blank lung for use in a subsequent song, I came to learn that there is no clearing it up.

You get it, you got it.

And you die from it.

Nothing poetic.

I should have known better then, but I continued with the analogies.

But after a recent excursion to the lower Poconos with the family, I think I’ll put that to rest.

And, after touring a real coal mine, Sofia will have learned the same lesson at a more impressionable age.

It was a long way from Disney, which we visited in June, but it hopefully made just as much of an impression.

The mine we visited had not been operational since 1973. It is “safe,” by today’s standards. It was dark inside, but well-lit as compared to when men and boys as young as Sofia went in not knowing if they were coming back out.

Just the ride in a train car left my eyes irritated and my back aching for a few days.

Sofia woke up the next morning with a migraine.

My elderly mother had swollen ankles.

Although Laurie says she unscathed, being from “peasant stock,” I had to remind her that her back hurt as well the next day.

And we were all more than a little chilled from the mine, which is kept at 52 degrees at all times (in contrast to all the homes and offices where people squabble over whether to keep the thermostat at 70 or 72 degrees because someone is “freezing”).

For those who went in every day for how many days their careers lasted, it was a matter of dying slowly – set against the ever-present prospect of dying fast in a disaster — while only earning enough in company scrip to subsist.

“We were expendable assets,” explained our tour guide, who is a coal miner at a small local mine and who came from generations of coal miners.

He said the donkeys in the mines were considered more valuable than the immigrant miners. Why? If something happened to a donkey, it cost the coal barons money to replace the donkey.

It cost them nothing to replace a miner who was killed or severely disabled. If no one else in the family could step up and fill the shoes of the dead, which usually meant a call for the oldest son to quit school and become a “breaker boy,” they gave you 48 hours to grieve before vacating the premises.

We were turned on to the mine tour by the tour guide at the Old Jail – the former Carbon County Jail – in Jim Thorpe, Pa.

It was there, in 1877, that four of the notorious Molly Maguires were hanged at once — with at least one left dangling and suffering for up to 10 minutes because the noose was not applied correctly.

Two more were hanged there, and others across the coal region, during the labor struggle of the late 19th century.

Ironically, we old toured an old Episcopal church in Jim Thorpe, which was founded by one of the town’s collective of millionaires.

This one made his money off the coal boom, as his railroad line transported the coal to the big cities.

The guide at the church, a congenial enough retired math teacher and athletic director at a local high school, spoke about the detailed stained glass windows that were commissioned to be done by artists in Italy by the millionaire’s widow, who sought permission for one of her pet projects from the queen of England.

Meanwhile, if we had Nick Foles stand on the steps of the church and throw a football, it would land at the courthouse where coal miners who struggled to feed their families were hanged in trials that objective legal experts today say were mockeries of justice.

Were some guilty of something? Yes. Were all guilty of everything? No.

Did these “Christians” with money to spare even care, or think twice?

And it hit me that no matter how things change, they still kind of stay the same.

The Irish immigrants of the time were lured to the mines because of the venom they felt – the “No Irish Need Apply” signs in the big cities where they disembarked as huddled masses yearning to breathe free – while what equates to the top one percent of the time twirled their heads over what shade of blue to make the eyes of Jesus in a stained glass window.

Sound familiar?

In the song “The American Land,” Bruce Springsteen wrote and sang(behind an Irish beat): “The hands that build this country are the ones they are always trying to keep out.”

No hyperbole there.

And no more here.

Not if I can help it.



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