Mother always told me, “Pride is the quality that lets them show you out instead of throwing you out.” The pride of which she spoke would better be translated as self-esteem, or dignity, or self-possession.
Pride was a peculiar quality of the Mountain poor.
It was not unlike the noble carriage and bearing of the Indians among whom they lived and against whom they contended for possession of those densely wooded hills. Though they might sit upon the ground nearly naked, the Indian sachems were noted for the gravity with which they conducted themselves.
Former Sen. James Webb knew these folks. He chronicled the role of the Scots-Irish in America with his famed book Born Fighting. Many of the figures of our history were famed for their combative nature—Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, George Patton, and even Harry Truman fall into this category. Mother thought we did, too.
Mother often told us tales of growing up in Appalachia. Many Americans today may have heard stories of violence and despair “down home.” The Hillbillies speak of going “into the Mountain.” Before the Interstate Highway System, all our family auto trips were visits to our grandparents, and these were a process of going into.
Mother remembered the 1920s when her mother, Mamaw, ordered the children down on their miner’s cabin floor. The mining company’s hired guns drove past their home in the middle of the night and fired shotgun blasts through the windows. Had any child stood, she or he would have been cut down in the hail of bullets. Papaw was a miners’ union organizer, and he was the thugs’ target.
Papaw took naturally enough to industrial strife. Long before the mines opened in Appalachia, the people raised there were clannish and remembered family feuds for decades.
Strikes and labor action against the mine owners came as second nature. It was said of Papaw that he had his own idea of the holy trinity: John L. Lewis was the legendary president of the union. He was the Father. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the Son. And the United Mine Workers’ of America was the Holy Ghost.
When Mother got “out of the Mountain,” she struck out for Newport News, Virginia, and war work. She soon found a job as a telephone operator, which wasn’t hard for her. She could speak clearly and operate a switchboard with speed and accuracy. Getting out of that job was hard.
During the war, you could be “frozen” in your place of employment if it was deemed essential for the war effort. And who could argue that telephone communications were not essential in the shipbuilding blue-collar town of Newport News?
Mother’s way of getting unfrozen from her job was not impossible.
She met my father on a blind date in 1943. He was an officer in the US Merchant Marine. Well paid, very well paid, by standards of the day, my father proposed on their third date.
War does that. He asked Proud Mary if she liked Robert Burns’ poem Mary Morison Ma’ Jo. (my joy). Oh yes, she agreed. She liked all the Scottish bards’ poems. “Well,” Leslie said, “if you marry me, your name will be Mary Morrison.” Who could resist?
Marriage and a move to Brooklyn were in her future. Very shortly after their marriage, Leslie’s voyages took him constantly into danger on the sea.
But Mary was not unacquainted with danger. Some of her high school beaus had been killed in the mines even before some others fell on distant fields of combat. Her younger brother spent the war as a Marine flame-thrower operator in the Pacific. He survived scoring dozens of Japanese soldiers he had set aflame.
World War II stories were not unusual for our boomer generation. But hearing of young men whose shirt sleeves got caught in coal-crushing machines and who died slow and agonizing deaths deep in the earth’s bowels was unique—at least on Long Island.
After college I had my own family. I tried to convey the sense of the miners’ stories Mother told me. All of that was as remote as the far side of the Moon to our suburban kids.
Then, we had the extraordinary opportunity of a family vacation on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. There, we learned that the only attraction in Sydney was a tour of a coal mine.
I jumped at the chance to learn something of what my Papaw, my uncles, and my cousins had experienced Down Home. I thought it would be a few minutes of lecture with perhaps 20 minutes of poking around in an unused mine shaft.
It wasn’t that at all. Our guide, Jimmy Smith, was a diminutive Scotsman. He was a retired coal miner who took us through the Miners’ Museum. On the walls we saw faded photos of mine union officials welcomed in Moscow by Communist bosses like Khrushchev and Brezhnev. This was unlike any mine union leadership I’d heard about in America.
Then, Jimmy took us down. And down. Deeper and deeper, my wife and I were hunched over. The dank, stale, odd smell of the mine shaft was unforgettable. We descended further and further. I could not let on to my elementary school children that I was afraid.
Why had I thought this was a good idea? Jimmy Smith, it turned out, was himself a cheerful cricket of a man and a committed Communist. He didn’t have to bend over. My five-foot twelve-inch wife and I both ached.
From out of the depths my soul cries out to Thee, O Lord!
I silently prayed to get out of there. Jimmy Smith brought us at length to a level part. There, we could at least stand up. There was an overhead light and a large truck tire. Inside the tire there was a lovely bed of flowers. For many of those miners, the flowers were the only color they would see in their six-day work weeks.
The 20 minutes stretched to an hour. Jimmy Smith seemed eager to drag us on. He told us with a malicious grin that we were then as deep as we could go. But the mine shaft level from that point extended five miles farther out—all under the Atlantic Ocean!
Silent prayers were answered. Jimmy Smith retraced his footsteps and took us out to air and light. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia.
But I had never been so confined so long in my life.
In all, our time in the coal mine was an hour and a half. Above ground, the museum offered us trips through the company store where miners vented their anger at mine owners’ gouging them.
The miners’ cabins were clean and sparse. Few extra items of furniture in any of them. In the museum bookstore, you could see volumes on shootings in the Twenties by provincial police. Those Canadians used Tommy guns against strikers.
When we got home, I thought Mother would be happy we had sought out such an experience. I thought she would be honored that I wanted my wife and our children to know something of what she and the folks in the Mountain had endured.
None of it. Mother was furious. “Why would you do such a foolish thing? Do you know the risk you were taking? Your grandfather would never let me go down in a mine. Or any of his daughters. How could you be so careless?”
She told me it had been the achievement of her life to get out of the Mountain. We had an explosion. Mountain people do not argue quietly.
I thought of course that she had exaggerated the danger. Our coal mine was inactive. There was no equipment down there. No picks were striking sparks on rocks. It was uncomfortable to be sure, but hardly perilous
Mother agreed to drop the subject and talk of other things. Then, weeks later, my wife spotted a little squib in The Washington Post. Kate was always catching the things I had overlooked.
Twenty-three miners killed in Cape Breton explosion.
Those miners were working the adjoining mine shaft. That could as easily have been our mine shaft.
From out of the depths I cried out to Thee, O Lord!
I owed Mother an apology. I had knowingly dismissed her fears. I refused to let fear determine my course. But I had heedlessly exposed my beloved wife and children to mortal dangers.
Proud of my college-bred attitudes, I thought I knew and she did not. Mine was a different kind of pride. And it was the kind of pride that goes before a fall—or an explosion.