Through one of life’s twists of fate, I found myself less than an hour away from the coal mining town in West Virginia where my mother was born. It wasn’t really her stomping grounds, since her family left before she learned how to walk. Still, the place drew me, like some crazy door that would open and take me back in time. Here’s what played out…
At the entrance to the mine where Archibald McLeish, my grandfather, used to dig, chip away, scratch, and claw for a day’s worth of coal, two boys and two girls play, oblivious to the past upon which they trample.
“I’m Jackson,” one of them calls out, as if from a time long gone.
When asked, the other three children, one-by-one, call out their names, proudly, all of which seem way too large, mature and responsible for them – but names into which time will forge them.
Hopefully, time will also help them find their way out of this all-but vacant hill-top town where their parents have stayed, stuck like magnets to the earth of their parents.
Time melts. Time warps. Time waits. Just for a moment, as Jackson calls out, “Me and my sister and my friends like to ride our bikes on the smooth ground over there around that big black thing.”
He is pointing to a memorial that was dedicated to honor 111 minors, including two families that each lost three men and one man who will remain unknown. All of them died in a blast in 1927. In this black, reflective memorial, Scottish and Irish names blend in alphabetical order, including Henry Russell, who, trapped, with no way out, wrote his parting message to his wife, scratching words with pieces of coal on scraps of paper that he tore from bags of cement. “Still alive,” he wrote, “but the air is getting bad. Oh, how I love you, Mary. I will soon be going to leave this world. Stay in America and give the kids a home and marry again if you have a notion, but God bless you and the kids.” Then he shut the scraps in his lunchbox, and closed his eyes.
Carol Thorn, whose father was a miner and whose brother still is, has made sure that none of these miners will be forgotten. You can find the memorial she helped raise funds for about a quarter mile from the mouth of the mine – if you have Carol guide you in her pick-up truck with four-wheel drive up a county road in Everettville, West Virginia. That’s the only way my wife Donna and I could have climbed up that thin, cracked, uneven, hole-filled lane, winding at a precarious angle toward the forgotten entrance of what is known as Federal #3 Mine.
At the top of the hill, across from the memorial, is a wooden leaning shack, with a crooked door and a cracked window, which could have been where my mother was born. In 1929. The year of the Great Depression, which could not have possibly depressed this area any more than it already was. The weight of the world sinks deep into the abandoned mines in these scarred mountains.
Running out of the path leading up from this mine, Jackson and his friends call out their names again, unaware of how the earth once shook beneath them.
When I later described what I saw to my mother, I said, “It was in the middle of nowhere,” and she just laughed and said, “It sounds more like the end of nowhere.”
Afterward, I had a vision of myself sinking into that mine, where I saw a black bird. And I reached out to the trembling bird who allowed me to caress it in my palm. Slowly, as I rubbed my hand across its feathers, the black soot fell off, revealing a bright yellow underneath. As the canary gradually returned to its entire yellow self, I said we had to leave so we both could thrive. But the canary replied that it had to stay to protect the others. I sighed, and said I understood, then, rubbing its head said the air was getting tight and I had to leave now. As I turned away, searching for daylight, I felt the canary perch on my finger, pointing the way out.
As a feather floats by, a bird flies on, recognizing itself in the feather, senses where it has come from, and catches a glimpse of where it is going.
And a feather floats by.