Luzerne County Memories
* Black Maria
* Mine Accidents: The Visible Scars
* Coping with the Depression
Thank you for the kind remarks and the encouragement. This week [written on 18 July 1998], a 23-year old miner was killed in a methane explosion in Joliett, Schuylkill County. That incident, and the many email messages I received from the list members about relatives who were killed in the mines, jogged my memory.
Living in the patch, I recall just once when I saw the ambulance pull up to the mine shaft to pick up mine accident victims. (There were other times, but I was in school.) The Susquehanna ambulance was painted black and was called the "Black Maria." I remember the women and children in the patch gathering in the front yard waiting for information. The usual questions were asked: "Who was it?" "How many involved?" "How did it happen?" Later, someone would come to give the information. This time it was not someone from the patch.
MINE ACCIDENTS: THE VISIBLE SCARS
The results of serious mine accidents could be seen in the community. There were men with one or two legs or arms missing. Men with one eye. Men with blue scars on their faces and arms indicating cuts that occurred while they were working. Probably, the most common characteristic was not the result of accidents but from breathing the dust. It was the terrible cough that the men had who suffered from
anthrasilicosis or black lung. People often said they were "coughing their lungs out." On Saturday nights, when the stores were open and the streets were filled with people, you would see one or two men who had lost their legs, sitting on the sidewalk with a cap in their lap, begging. Remember, this was before Social Security was enacted, and the men had little or no income.
Almost all families had friends or relatives who were injured in the mines. My neighbor had been burned in a gas explosion and was left with terrible scars on his face and arms. His nose and ears were almost burned off. His hair was missing from his face and his lips were two or three times their normal size. And yet, he still went back to the mines to work. I had a twenty-year old cousin who was killed in an explosion and an uncle who was injured while working on Good Friday. He never worked on Good Friday after that.
My father, who worked in the mines all of his life, had only one eye and was more accident prone than the average miner. He was injured six times, but I remember only the last two. They were laying track inside the mine and carrying the track by hand. One man missed the cue to set it down and dropped it. It crushed my father's thumb and he was unable to use it much after that. Another time, he was coupling cars in the mine when the motorman started before the signal and the cars came together crushing his arm. He was never able to flex it completely after that. Finally, (this happened before I was born) there was a fall of rock in my father's section. When the rescuers found him, he was sitting on the floor of the mine with a rock across his legs and another rock on his back bending him over the first rock. After extricating him, they took him to the hospital in the ambulance. (Ironically, my mother saw the ambulance pass the house but never realized that it contained her husband.) Later that evening, his buddy brought his glasses and dinner pail to the house and told her that "Dai" was in the hospital.
Going across the street to get his mother and sister, the three ladies went to the hospital where they found him lying on a bed, unwashed and still in his mining clothes. The nurse told them that he wasn't expected to live. (Evidently, they were waiting for the undertaker to clean him up.) My mother then went to summon our family doctor who came to the hospital and instructed the nurses to wash him. He told them that "Dai" was going to live. He had two broken pelvis bones. Well, my father didn't die and after many months of hospitalization and recuperation, (you guessed it) he went back to work in the mines. This experience was not unique but was typical of many, many mining families during the early 20's. The men always returned to the mines because it was the only thing they knew and mining seemed to "be in their blood." In a sense, they were slaves to the industry.
COPING WITH THE DEPRESSION
I thought I'd reminisce about the depression from my perspective.
In the fall of 1938, my father could no longer work in the mines because of failing eyesight. When he left, we were given our eviction notice since it was the policy of the colliery to allow only those families with mine workers to live in the company houses. There was one exception, however, and that was a widow whose husband was killed in the mine. She was allowed to remain in the house.
There was no compensation from the company for anyone leaving, and my father was one quarter shy of being eligible for Social Security. He was, however, eligible for a state blind pension of thirty dollars per month. The rent in our new home was twenty dollars per month. My mother received a small mother's pension which helped a lot.
Periodically, we would get a notice to report at a specific time and date to the local firehouse for government surplus food. There was a small crowd of people waiting with burlap bags, cardboard boxes, shopping bags and even, in one or two cases, small wagons with which to transport the food to their homes.
The food came in cans or packages marked "not to be sold." The food was usually powdered milk, graham flour (never white flour), grapefruit juice, prunes, rice, corn meal, raisins, three or four grapefruits, cheese and canned beef. Sometimes there was a little lard or butter. (There may have been some other items, but I can't remember.) The meat came in a can the size of a large juice can and was very "stringy." It did, however, make good stew. The cheese came in five pound packages and was very good. Oleomargarine may have been given also. In those early days, oleomargarine (we called it butterine) came in pound packages and resembled lard. Each package came with a small packet of orange, powdered food coloring. Mom would put the oleo in a large bowl, sprinkle the powder on it and proceed to mix it with her hands until a yellow color was uniform throughout. She would then put it in containers and put the containers in a cool place, such as the cellar floor. If the weather was cold, she would put it an icebox on our back porch.
As I recall, the Salvation Army was the only organization to supply baskets at Thanksgiving. If someone submitted your name, you would be notified to be at the Hall at a specific time and date. I was always embarrassed to go with my father to pick up our groceries, so I would sit low in the seat, hoping no one would recognize me. There was always a crowd of people waiting for their names to be called. When your name was called, you proceeded to the front of the hall to get your huge bag of groceries. It was embarrassing to be the recipient of charity at the time. (There may have been other agencies in other parts of the county that distributed food, but the Salvation Army was the only one in our town.)
No one had a large wardrobe in those days. I had church clothes, school clothes and play clothes. Usually, one pair of pants for each occasion. Mom would check my school clothes when I came home so she could wash and dry them, if need be, for the next day.
I got my first job when I was a sophomore in high school. I was the delivery boy for a corner grocery store. My job included cleaning up at the end of the day. My working hours were: Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Fridays, 3 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. and Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. with two short lunch breaks. I had to walk to deliver the groceries. Cleaning up meant washing the meat trays, washing the greasy meat grinder and using a steel wire brush to clean the butcher block. Soap and water could not be used on the butcher block. I received my pay on Saturday after work. I was paid one dollar in cash and a dollar and a half credit on the book for the week.
On my sixteenth birthday, I applied for a job at the Duplan Silk Mill. In three months, I was hired as a bobbin boy on spinners at twenty-five cents per hour. Although the shift began at 1:30 and ended at 9:00, I was permitted to work from 3 to 9 with no lunch hour. Since I had a last period study hall in school, I was permitted to leave early to go to work.
In a few weeks, I was given a job as a spinner operator. That meant I would get thirty-two cents per hour and have the opportunity to work until eleven or eleven thirty at night. Many times, I was asked to work on Saturdays and Sundays which I was happy to do.
After graduation, I went into the Navy at a base pay of fifty dollars a month which is what all recruits received. Since I had dependents, (Mom and Dad) twenty-two dollars was deducted from my pay, the government added an additional twenty-eight, so my parents received fifty dollars a month. It was adequate for their needs and gave me peace of mind knowing they had enough to live on.
It was not easy writing this letter because I didn't want to evoke emotions. These circumstances were not unique. There were hundreds of other cases with similar circumstances throughout Luzerne County. The sole purpose was to give an idea of working conditions and wages at that particular time.
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