Saturday, July 3, 2010


It was a humid, mid-summer evening. World War II has ended two years earlier. But the war between the coal miners of West Virginia and the mine operators seemed never to resolve itself.
Aunt Maggie pushed the creaking porch swing back and forth with her stout legs, cradling me next to her, as the sun took its leave behind the tall hills, draping Grantown in evening shadows.
Along with the blinking beams of lightning bugs, we could see the torch lights glowing brighter in the descending darkness, the long line of coal miners carrying those torches weaving like a giant Chinese dragon along the narrow, winding road that wound through the hills from Fairmont to Grantown.
"We'll walk down to Petrolos. I'll be right back."
I knew she had gone to wash her feet in a chipped enamel basin. It was a practice she held fast until her death at 95, washing her feet before she left the house. Irish to the core, she vowed she would only meet her Maker with clean feet.
Onto her clean feet she would gingerly tug on a pair of nylon hose and secure each with a tight garter just above her knees before slipping on the practical black shoes she kept polished for church and any other occasion when she left the small five room bungalow where she had lived since she married a coal miner - a miner who left her a widow with two small children when she was barely 25.
"Let's go Alice Ann."
I held my great aunt's hand tightly as we walked down the steep road from her home. At the bottom of the hill she nodded to Joe Petrolo who was sitting in a rusted steel chair, leaned back against the outside wall of the car repair garage he owned in Grantown, where you could fill your tank and buy groceries, all in one stop; a convenience store well before its modern incarnation.
Joe stood up and graciously motioned Aunt Maggie to take his place in the chair with withered peals of red paint still clinging precariously in odd places. I sat down on the ground beside her.
As Aunt Maggie and Joe conversed, I watched the first of the torch bearing miners cross the old wooden bridge just outside of town. They wore the familiar helmets with the single lights atop that covered their heads when they descended into the bowls of the Grantown mine. It was something they had not done for several weeks. The strike had begun in late spring. It was now nearing the Fourth of July.
The company store at the entrance to the mine cut off credit when the picket lines went up. It was Joe Petrolo who now carried mounting bills for groceries for the beleaguered miners and their families.
The torch bearing miners were nearing Petrolo's Garage. Walking smartly in front of the parade of miners was a short man with a stocky build. Unlike the men behind him he wore a suit with a starched white collared shirt and dark tie. His large head was topped with a thatch of black hair shiny with Brylcreem. Thick eyebrows protruded like a bushy precipice over his steely eyes.
To my six-year-old eyes he seemed odd.
As he passed by, the wives of miners and their children waved to the little man. He waved back, but his face remained stoic.
He was maybe half a block's distance from Petrolo's Garage when Aunt Maggie looked down at me. "Stand up Alice Ann. Mr. Lewis will be passing by."
As Mr. Lewis walked past us he waved to Aunt Maggie.
"Hello, John," said Joe Petrolo, with a familiarity with which you would greet an old friend.
As the long line of miners followed, side-by-side, two and four abreast, holding the torches out in front of them, I asked my great aunt, "Who is Mr. Lewis."
"That was John L. Lewis," she replied, pride evident in her voice.
When the miners had finally passed Aunt Maggie took my hand. But before we turned to go back up the hill, Joe Petrolo handed me a penny candy fished from his pant pocket. I had come to expect the candy from his magic pocket that seemed to store an endless amount of caramels, bubble gum and my favorite, jaw breakers.
Before I went to sleep that night, Aunt Maggie told me the story of John L. Lewis and how he headed the United Mine Workers to bargain for better wages and safer working conditions for coal miners. His efforts came to late for her husband and for a younger brother, whose right leg was mangled by a run away coal car when he was only twelve, leaving him to hobble around on a wooden leg the remainder of his shortened life.
I am reminded of standing for John L. Lewis each time I see that famous and touching scene in To Kill A Mockingbird when Atticus Finch leaves the courtroom and the Black minister urges Scout and Jem to stand. "Your father is passing," he tells them. It is one of the most moving and dramatic scenes in motion picture history.
John L. Lewis was a ruthless, granite-jawed, cigar smoking rebel who split the CIO from the American Federation of Labor and warred with his rival for more than two decades. With no remorse, he sanctioned a prolonged strike by coal miners in the midst of World War II. While disavowing communism, he hired known communists as organizers to swell the ranks of the unions he led.
John L. Lewis was no Atticus Finch.
If Maggie Green of Grantown were here today, no doubt she would strongly disagree. And I would love her all the more for it.
I hear the creak of the porch swing. I feel the warmth of her arms holding me close and the softness of her lap that became my pillow when I could no longer resist the rythmic sway of the swing.
Maggie Green never went to school, but she learned to read and write, even though the addressee of her letter was left to figure out where one sentence ended and another began. Punctuation was not among her learned skills.
Thank you Aunt Maggie for Mr. Lewis and Joe Petrolo, penny candy and fresh rubbard pie, baths in a tub on the kitchen table, candle guided walks to the outhouse in the middle of the night, the aroma of freshly baked bread and cinnamon rolls wafting through open windows, running through the rows of white sheets fluttering on the clothes line, and the creaking of the porch swing.
Perhaps this is what I will find in Heaven. I know I'll find you there, Maggie Green.

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