The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Coal Mine Orphans

By Allan Young © 2015

Online: March, 2015

Allan Ishmael YoungAllan Ishmael Young(About the author: Allan Ishmael Young, of Lee County, Virginia originally, is a man of many hats, having done over a hundred things to make a living—all of which have served as grist for his writing mill. That mill has turned out over a hundred published books in all a genres, including seven engineering reference and college textbooks—as well as thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, starting with the first paid one while he was in sixth grade. A manufacturing engineer by education, he has served as an executive at several levels, including president, in manufacturing and publishing. He is a collegiate instructor, a lecturer to various groups, a worldwide consultant in three professions, with sidelines as a livestock judge and river boat captain—among other things. He is/was owner of a publishing company with five newspapers, a regional farm magazine, six rural, horse and nostalgia magazines, and a book publishing division.)

Please, Daddy, don't work in the mines, today,
For dreams have so often come true.
Please, Daddy, don't work in the mines today,
I never could live without you.

Ishmael Young had heard his father sing that song, in all of its sadness, hundreds of times. Beyond these lines of the repeated chorus, it went on to tell of a little girl's dream of a coal mine explosion, cave-in and fire, in which her father, and many others, were killed. It spoke of sweethearts and wives gathered around the mine drift mouth to see who had survived. None did, of course.

The song went on to tell of the little girl's father ignoring her pleas and going on to work. Then, in the words of the song, her dream did come true, and the scenes from the dream, as well as the chorus, repeat themselves, this time for real.

During all of Ishmael's young life he had seen it—the anguished weeping of young wives and old mothers whose husbands and sons were part of a continuously growing list of miners killed and maimed by the dangerous work they did and the unsafe places they worked. He had also lived with the hollow-eyed and frightened children, whose fathers were not coming home, as they wandered around the camps, not knowing what to do next, or what would happen to them.

Now, at the age of eight, it was happening to him. There had been a massive cave-in at Kemmerer Gem mine, and his father was one of those who didn't come out. People were walking around the camp in a daze, talking in hushed tones, except for the crying of the families whose relatives were still in there.

The frightened, wild, but helpless look in his mother's eyes when one of the men came to tell her that her husband, Ab, was still in there, but that was all they knew, was stamped indelibly in Ishmael's brain forever. His two sisters were crying, but he and his little brother were still too young and confused to understand the impact of the statement that their father was still in there.

Kemmerer Gem coal mine, like all the rest of them around there, consisted of a layer of coal, sometimes up to five feet thick, sandwiched between two layers of slate—one above and one below. Above the slate was sandstone, usually reaching to the top of the ground. The upper layer of slate was what had a tendency to fall in, and had to be held up with "timbers," heavy posts, as the removal of the coal seams advanced.

This time, as the survivors had reported to the camp, there had been a severe slate and rock fall which not only might have killed some miners, but had trapped others behind it as well. Unless rescuers could get to them, there was a possibility their air supply would become exhausted and they would die, too. No one seemed to know where Ishmael's father had fit in all this, since his main job was running the big tram that pulled the full coal cars out of the mine and took the empty ones back in. One man said he must have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Remembering all the miners' funerals his folks had dragged the kids to, and all the disfigured men he had seen lying in coffins, Ishmael finally started to realize that one of those scenes could be repeated with his father. He left the house and wandered off towards the company store, where little knots of men were squatting and talking.

In one group some wag was attempting to add a little levity to relieve the tension of the situation by telling a funny story.

"So they told me that since I was his best friend I should go and tell his wife," he was saying as Ishmael had walked up. "They said I would be more likely to break it to her gently. So I knocked on the door, and when she came out, I said, 'Hello, widow.' And she said, 'You're crazy, I ain't no widow.' And I said, 'The hell you ain't. Here they come with the corpse.'"

A few of the men smiled, while others just shook their heads.

Ishmael went around to the back steps of the store and sat down. In spite of the fact that his father had repeatedly whipped him pretty severely, and sometimes for no apparent reason, Ishmael still couldn't stand the thought of losing him. Remembering Ab's sense of humor, Ishmael smiled. Ab and Lee Hedgecoth were always competing on bidding on the "ugly man cake" for each other at the camp school's box suppers. Then there was his dad's constant trading of machinery, dogs, knives, guns and many other things—always tongue-in-cheek.

He was always tops in the first aid and rescue classes, thought Ishmael, and he survived the war. Maybe he'll come out of this O.K., too.

But Ab's close friends, Jerry Harber and Lloyd Fultz, as well as Ab's own twelve year old brother, had not made it through similar situations.

"Old Ab will be alright, Son," said one of the exhausted miners who had spotted the boy sitting on the steps, sat down and put his arm around him. "He always said they would have to knock him in the head on judgment day, and I believe it."

Ishmael had noticed that the relays of rescue workers, digging the slate and rock out of the caved-in area, were not even resting when they were relieved, but wandering around the camp like everyone else.

As he sat alone on the back steps of the commissary, Ishmael began to hum some of the songs his father loved to sing. "The Dying Hobo," "All Around the Water Tank," "When the Work's All Done This Fall," and "Glass Eyed Blackie." Most of the old railroad and cowboy songs were sad, and Ishmael started to cry.

He had gotten used to the mine deaths. The kid across the road had been orphaned, two houses down they had been orphaned and the house next to the school the same thing. They had all been forced to move away, new families had moved into their houses and the cycle started all over again.

He had long feared that he would become one of these "rotated orphans," but now that his time had come, he wasn't sure he could handle it—the tears got thicker, and his eight year old heart got heavier.

As it started to get dark, Ishmael had begun his trek home from the commissary, and was joined by the Broken Man.

"Ab will come out all right, Kid," he said. "I have a feeling about these things, and I'm usually right."

The Broken Man, as the kids in the camp called him, lived one house down and across the road from the Youngs. His back had been broken in a slate fall, so he walked bent over with his face parallel to the ground. He still lived in a company house because they had found menial tasks which he could do around the camp and the mines. To keep from paying him off, Ab had said. He had told Ishmael the doctors couldn't set a broken back, like they could a broken leg or arm.

"Even if you tied a man between two railroad engines," he had said, "you can't pull the back open far enough for the bones to realign themselves."

So the Broken Man went on about his business all stooped over, having to twist his head sideways to look up at anybody's face.

I hope my dad doesn't wind up like you, thought Ishmael. No, I don't mean that. At least the Broken Man is alive.

When Ishmael had arrived at home his sister yelled at him, "Where've you been? Mom went to the tipple. We girls are supposed to stay with you boys."

"You can stay with him," said Ishmael, pointing to his little brother. "I'm going to the tipple, too."
Over his sisters' protests he left the house to walk the half mile to the tipple, in the opposite direction from the store.
There was a large gathering of women and kids at the foot of the hill. They were not allowed to go near the mine because of the danger from machinery and the electricity which powered it. As Ishmael approached the group in the gathering gloom, a shout went up.

"Here come some of them now!"

The first man out was being carried on a stretcher. His left leg was bandaged and bloody.

Spotting Ishmael's mother, the man said, "Just a minute, fellows."

"Is Ab ----?" she started to say, but the man interrupted her.

"Ab's OK. He got us out. Several places caved in at once, crushing several men and sealing us all in from the main tunnel. Ab had just parked a string of supply cars, mostly timbers, on the side track, and was in the cockpit of the motor alone when it happened. He didn't get hurt much. As the rescue workers worked the other side of the fall, Ab worked our side—tearing out slate and rock with his bare hands and pushing the big pieces aside with his motor. After he cleared a small opening to where there was better air, he dragged all of us, who couldn't walk or crawl, through it. He made a sling of his bank belt, hung it around his own neck and under each man's arms, and literally crawled and dragged us out that way. He saved four men's lives, I guess. He's still in there helping others."

Standing next to Ishmael's mother was the mother of his friend from across the road, Willard Freels.

She said, "And Clarence ----?"

"I'm sorry, Helen," the man said, "but Clarence and another man were right under the slate fall. I'm sure there is no hope."

Ishmael could not see her face in the dark, but could almost feel the shock and sadness, as his mother put her arm around her neighbor and walked towards home with her.

"I'd better feed my kids," was all he heard the poor woman say.

Ishmael arrived home a few minutes before his mother, after she saw to it that her friend was cared for.

When she came in the door, she announced to her family, "Your daddy will be hungry."

"Well, we got four of 'em out," said a tired, dirty and bloody Ab Young, as he had headed for the wash basin on the back porch.

"So you're a hero," said his wife. "We heard how you patched them up, put splints on broken arms and legs, and drug them out."

"Now you know, Honey," he said. "There are no heroes in a mine. Just people. But poor Clarence. I had to scrape him up with a shovel and put him in a dynamite box. Too bad."

Ab had a way of hiding his feelings by being blunt, almost gross.

"Well, Helen will be rich," said his wife. "The company pays forty-eight hundred dollars for a death."

"This one must have really been bad," thought Ishmael. "They usually open the casket, no matter what."

But at Clarence Freels' funeral they did not.

Later, as he walked home from the cemetery, Willard caught up with him.

"Well, Ishmael," he said. "I won't be seeing you much anymore. We have to be out of the company house by the end of the month. We're moving to Turner's Siding. There is land there, and my mother is buying a lot. The men in Kemmerer Gem have volunteered to build us a house. I'll be going to St. Charles school."

What kind of place is this? Thought Ishmael. Willard's dad was killed three days ago, and they have already been told to move. The cycle is starting all over again. Rotated orphans! And to think I could have been one. And I still could!

(All of Allan Young's books are available in print from, and many are on line from Kindle. One of his well-read books is THE COAL DIGGER, fiction, based on truth, about life in the coal mines and camps in the 1930's and 1940's, and this story is part of it. Another is THE STONEFACE LEGEND, about the northern migration during the same period. THE NEW REVEREND, about religion, crime, and romance, is set during the same period.)