Twin Beeches -- an Illinois Love Story
Author: paul schoaff

Chapter 28
Coal Mining : Honest, Hard Living

(Narrator)Coal Mining : Honest, Hard Living


If it doesn’t Kill you, it’ll Make you Stronger



 Charley Poole thought back, twenty-some years back, to when he and Hawkins got to know each other at a big weekend foxhunt and how they talked about farming and mining and hunting and fishing and found themselves thinking about starting a small strip-mining operation together.   For some reason, Hawkins backed out after they dug the test hole and after they got the farmer's agreement on the rate. 


The trick was to find a spot on the side of a hill where you could take off the overburden of dirt and shale with a bulldozer, a dozer that would also build the road to the mine while it was there, and, with luck, clean out anything standing in the way of a drainage ditch away from the face of the coal seam. And, after all that, a dozer owner willing to wait for the coal to be mined and delivered and paid for to get his 10 cents per bushel royalty. 


The farmer also got a piece, maybe 15 cents per bushel, and the coal could be sold, delivered, for 40 to 50 cents per bushel.  One man could work out 100 bushels per day without killing himself, and deliver them into two customer's basements.  On a good day, then, you might have $25 to work with, minus any gasoline and wear and tear on the equipment.  Most days you had one customer, and after paying for lunch, came home with, maybe, $10 for a day's work.  Everyone involved had to trust the mine operator to be completely honest.  Everyone trusted Charley Poole.


If you were lucky enough to have a cheap helper (perhaps a son who didn't get a vote) and, possibly, one or two other guys show up at the mine to get 35 cent coal, you might come back with $25 or even $30.  Charley thought $10 a day was better than nothing, so he screwed up his courage and made the arrangements himself.   Charley remembered his father, a man who once worked the same steam drill and coalface as the great man, John L. Lewis, though just where that happened was a little unclear.  In those days, a man who tried to stand up against the mine owners, to try to get a better wage or a safer mine, that man might lose his job and only find work by becoming a different man in a different state for awhile.  Perhaps both Charley's father and John L. had been part of a strike over in Louisa, Iowa and then struck out to Southern Illinois for a time, sending what was left over of their meager pay to their families back home.


Being the mine owner and being above ground instead of working hundreds of feet underground was a big step up, he thought.  Perhaps it was a way to test himself, to deaden the pain of his first wife's death, to try to find some meaning for what was left of his life.


After the coal was uncovered, he used an iron breaker bar to wedge down into the solid top of the coal seam, gradually finding his way down to the bottom, widening the hole as he went, and standing in water until he could get enough cleared on the creek side to let the water first seep, then gush away from the coal. 


After that, with some black powder charges, some fuse, an auger and trial and error, he learned to drill a hole the right distance from the face of the coal, how much powder to use and how hard to tamp down the coal dust that sealed the charge.  He learned where to stand in case something went wrong with the charge.  He learned if a charge “hung fire” he might as well just put up a sign to keep out, 'hang-fire' and go sit with his coffee Thermos before taking a chance on drilling another hole next to the one that failed.  Black powder was not cheap, and you had to travel to Canton to get it.  You could only buy so much at a time, too.  Best you not have too many bad fuses.  


Assuming you usually got a good ‘shot’, you then had to wedge all those pieces of coal away from the face with your long iron breaker bar, slip down into the cold water and throw the chunks up on top of the coal where trucks could be loaded from the pile. Clear the path for the water to run to the creek.   Rocks and some fines went into the burn barrel.  Every ton of coal you got into a customer’s basement or coal shed had to be shoveled three times.  I don’t think even illegal immigrants would do it today.


He learned his customers weren't interested in finely chewed up coal, and would pay extra for big 25 pound chunks of high grade bituminous that would hold their fire in the furnace or pot belly stove all night without having to dance around in the cold morning trying to restart it.  He learned even when he didn't have a ready customer, he could park the loaded truck, with big shiny chunks along the edges, right in front of the Busy Bee or Bucy’s on Main Street, go in for a piece of pie and some lip from Dorothy or Louise, and sometimes not have time to finish it before a customer came along and remembered how empty their basement coal shuttle was getting.


He learned to keep a fire in the burn barrel even when the weather warmed, because nothing dries cotton gloves like hanging them from the rim of the barrel while a hot fire smoldered below.  He learned some days, days after a rain, you couldn't get out of the mine without a load.


He found places selling rubberized and waterproof gloves that once he used them were never to be touched by any other family member, or used for farm chores and were cause for turning around to go home to get if they were forgotten, particularly on a cold morning.  He found parts for his old ¾ ton GMC pickup in the local junkyard and rebuild kits for the brakes, points and plugs at Western Auto.  He could set the points and adjust the plug gap with his eyes closed, and even the mystery of why a windshield wiper motor would sometimes quit in the middle of a rainstorm eventually yielded to confidence he could handle any problem coming along.  


Years passed, and along the way, he finally learned that the big new mine didn’t mind dropping two tons of coal into the back of the old GMC 3/4 ton.  They didn’t even bother to charge.  They tipped their hats at the tipple to those who knew how to do it the old way.  The shovel men chuckled whenever they came to a little spot where somebody had mined out a little hole of coal in the vast field they were uncovering, but they certainly respected the effort it had taken. 


He still wondered, after 28 years, why Hawkins had decided not to go ahead with him.  He thought it was maybe because people told Hawkins Charley Poole was a lazy man who couldn't hold a regular job.  But, he wondered, had it been just the opposite?  Was Hawkins the kind of man who could commit to a course of action and then stick with it, no matter the consequences?  And, he thought, 28 years later, what difference does it make, anyway?  We're both still poor as a scurvy calf and neither of us can say they understand their oldest son.  Maybe time to change the subject.  So he spoke up again.


 “The dangdest thing happened on Wednesday last, Howie.  You know, the day I was noodling for catfish in Sugar Creek and stopped by to get some fresh water from you?  On my way into town, that new watchman stopped me, right in the middle of the day.  Said I had a tail light out, but he said it came back on when he pounded on the side of the fender. When I told him my lights weren’t on, he said he just wanted to stop me to see if he could have a drink of the water from my jug.  I gave him a cupful, and he smelled it first before drinking it.  Then he asked if I brought it from home.  I told him, no, I picked it up at your place, ‘cause you've got the best tasting water in Schuyler County.  The man just laughed and handed me back the cup, water and all.”


And then 'Sunglasses' said, “Funny thing, someone else told me the same thing – Hawkins’s son, Eddie, when I visited him at the jail.” 


“So I said, 'what a coincidence'!  You know, that new cop is kind of strange.  He acts like he’s some sort of big shot instead of a night watchman.  I never saw a young man with so much self-appreciation!”


Dutch said, “I heard he hopes to be upgraded to patrolman or sheriff if the township will kick in some money to add to the Businessman's Association pay”  MaryAnn, his daughter, heard that from old Bader.


Hawkins didn't say a thing, being lost in thought about why funny coincidences happened.  Finally, he said “Did he say what he went to talk to Eddie about?” 


“No”, said Charley, “not that I recollect.”


Finally, the time came to douse the fire and move on.  The skeeters were becoming immune to the mixture of wood smoke and "6-12"  repellant stink.   The men walked in and out of the steam from the doused fire on the chance that some of the skeeters hadn't yet learned that trick.


Charley and Hawkins had become too damned polite to come right and say what was on their minds, the dogs were lost somewhere, and the moon was going down, leaving them to feel around in the dark for their horns, their flashlights and their cushions.


“Next week, my place.” was the last thing Charley said to them as they each drove off to look for their hounds.


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