The pail and the lantern. For Jimmy, in this town, in 1908, these were the icons of adulthood. Sure, there were many more, but they were at the top of his list. He saw them in his sleep, dancing around the magic of his dreams.
Each morning, at six o’clock sharp, Richard MacGregor would kiss Jimmy and his two younger sons on the forehead, remind them to behave for their teacher, and always mind their manners. Aileen would then hand her husband his black metal lunch pail and miner’s lamp, pat him on the cheek, and bid him a good day, “Be safe down there, Richard … God be at your back, Dear.”
When bored at school, which was nearly every day, Jimmy’s eleven-year-old mind would go to those paternal images as the default source of relief—solace from the torture of sitting in the prison known as a classroom.
He idolized his father, enraptured by the man’s voice as he told tales of his beloved Scotland after supper. When he was home for the meal. Jimmy treasured the sound of his larger-than-life laugh, usually punctuated by a hoarse, bottomless cough. Then he would lean over his chair, expectorate the day’s blackened residue from the shafts into the metal spittoon, and wipe the corners of his mouth with a handkerchief. The hankie was always nearby. Jimmy longed to laugh like that one day. He wanted a chair, spittoon, and hankie, just the same as his Dad.
Carbondale, a typical Pennsylvania coal-mining town, boasted a larger than usual one-room school house. Miss Corcoran—the same teacher Jimmy fell in love with three years ago in first grade—droned on about Teddy Roosevelt. She explained to the older students that his Presidential term would end next year, 1909. She then reviewed McKinley’s assassination seven years before, concluding the day’s history lesson. All he cared to remember about Roosevelt was that the man had resolved the United Mine Workers of America coal strike in 1902. Drifting dangerously close to a nap, he was startled by that dreaded sound of the siren from the top of Salem Hill. There was a momentary pause, followed by three whistle blasts, pause, then two more. A collapse.
Half the town arrived at the site within minutes, running from their shacks and tents. Down the mountain cascaded the dust, smoke, and dread. The horrible news—twenty men died that day—the good news being all were retrieved so they could be laid out on their kitchen tables for a proper wake. Including Richard MacGregor.
Two weeks later Jimmy was handed a pail and a lantern, “May God be at your back, my son” said his mother, as the brothers watched in silence.
October found Jimmy breaking coal with the other boys. As the weeks passed and the leaves began to fall, he learned to drive mules by the hopper cars. Tall for his age and skinny; when December arrived, he was squeezing through the anthracite rooms with ease. There would be a Christmas repast for the family.
By the age of fifteen, James MacGregor would laugh, lean his already rounded shoulders over the spittoon, and spit up black dust. Just as his father did.
John J. Siefring has authored two novels; CALEB’S WINDOW and AN IMPORTANT DAY. He received his doctoral degree from Fordham University and has held positions on the adjunct faculty at Stony Brook University, Long Island University, and Pace University. Connect with him at his author’s page: https:www.goodreads.com/JohnJSiefring.