Friday, June 26, 2015

"I was an anthracite miner . . . . "


Anthracite mine location - Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe), PA
(Click for full-size map.)


In spring 1972, I was away from the 7th grade for a few weeks while my family went to care for my Granddaddy Melker in the hospital.

He was 77, and his years of working in the coal mines were catching up with him.  I had always heard that he "only had one lung," and now he was fading.

As he lay in his hospital bed in Coaldale, PA, he opened his eyes and looked at me. "Remember, Joey," he said, "I was an anthracite miner . . . . "

Anthracite is the extremely hard and clean-burning (relatively speaking) coal found in Eastern Pennsylvania. (Most coal is that "other" coal: bituminous - see map below.)

Granddaddy Melker on the steps leading
from the house up to the "back street"
(Photo: Patsy Scarry Jones)
Granddaddy Melker probably would have been proud to have mined any kind of coal. But he was especially proud to have been an anthracite coal miner.

Every summer when I was growing up, we would travel from New Jersey to spend time in the Pennsylvania town of Nesquehoning with my mother's parents. By that time, Granddaddy was no longer mining. He would spend all day doing what he loved -- tending the flowers in his garden. Nesquehoning is built on the side of a mountain, and Granddaddy's gardens were in a series of plots at various levels in the sloped yard of the house.

My sisters and I have lots of memories of Granddaddy and his flowers. (You can read about some of those memories in my sister Elaine's essay, "Columbine," in My Favorite Plant: Writers and Gardeners on the Plants They Love, edited by Jamaica Kincaid, and Patsy's blog post, "Underground Labor".)

But I also have another memory. I had a special job on those summer visits. Every year, Granddaddy would lay in a supply of coal to heat the house. The coal would be delivered by a truck that came up the "back street" and poured it into a room in the basement level of the garage. (Because Granddaddy's home sat on the mountainside, the garage was elevated a full two stories above the level of the house.) Granddady had engineered a sluice that ran beneath the garden into the basement of the house, so that it could be stored adjacent to the furnace. My job was to shovel the coal into the sluice opening, where a stream of water carried it to the basement; then, as the basement room filled up with a coal, I would proceed there and subdivide the delivery among several smaller bins in the basement.

Emile Zola, Germinal
I can still remember the damp, carbony smell of the wet coal in that cramped basement. (And make no mistake, the whole house carried the smell that came from burning coal year after year.)

When I went to college, I discovered that there was such a thing as literature about coal miners. The big project of my sophomore year was a paper on Zola's Germinal. It was probably at that point that I began to slowly perceive how mysterious it is that some of us enjoy a very comfortable life, a life in which  crushing working conditions are an abstraction, and others actually labor away in those conditions with little hope of escape.

I discovered that, besides 1984, George Orwell had written an unforgettable description of being in the mines: The Road to Wigan Pier. It was from this that I came to understand that the cramped conditions in the mines made the mere task of getting to the mine face -- before the actual work of extracting coal even began -- a painful ordeal that most of us could never endure.

Diamond and coal -- allotropes of carbon
Years later, I would honor Granddaddy by taking my children to see the replica of the coal mine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, and to the Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, PA, and on countless rock-collecting expeditions.

In the early 2000s, I worked on patent licensing, including for a patent on something called "diamond-like carbon (DLC)," a super-hard substance synthesized from cheap graphite, and used in electronics and other applications.  As I sat in a comfortable office in the Chicago Loop, tapping away at my computer and underlining sentences in patent documents with a bright yellow highlighter, I remember thinking, "Granddaddy, we've come a long way . . . . "

*  *  *  *  *

Last year, a new work premiered in Philadelphia: Anthracite Fields. A few weeks ago, it was announced that Anthracite Fields won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for music composition.




I'm glad that now more people will know what it means to say, "Remember, I was an anthracite miner . . . . "


Pennsylvania coal resource map - showing anthracite fields in pink.
(Source: Pennsylvania Earth Science Teachers Association.)



Says Phoebe Show: "The miners know / That to hard coal / My fame I owe.
For my delight / In wearing white / Is due alone to / Anthracite."
Lackawanna Railroad
(The Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad promoted the clean-burning
attributes  of anthracite coal with the "Phoebe Snow" campaign.)


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