Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (10 page)

BOOK: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
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A worked-out mining town in eastern Kentucky, Blackey. It is near the Virginia border. The Cumberlands are in view; is it fog, smoke, or a heavy dust that causes them to appear more distant than they really are? The people of the town, population 350—the young have gone—are, many of them, of Revolutionary War stock. Most are on welfare.
Along the superhighway, cutting through the mountains, gangs of men are casually engaged in road repair. All day trucks and half-trucks rumble by, kicking up clouds of coughing dust. During the trip to Blackey, there were glimpses of deep “hollers” and shacks; and an occasional person. Half-hidden by the mountain greenery were the ubiquitous small mountains of slag.
We’re behind the mountains, deep in the hollow, Bull Creek. It’s a long, winding, tortuous dirt road, some seven miles from Blackey.
Aunt Katherine Haynes is seventy-seven. She lives by herself in a cottage, on the rocks, at the foot of the mountains. It is surrounded by caterpillar tractors and bulldozers. On the wall, among olden photographs, is the legend: God Bless Our Home. It is a spare place, singularly neat: a folded umbrella in one corner, a homemade broom in another; an ancient brass bedstead is the one conspicuous piece of furniture.
She recalls the hollow of her small girlhood: “The road, a horse could travel it, but that was all. No cars, no wagons, or no nothin’ back then. Then they went to have wagons and kinda widened the road up. Each man used to work six days a year, free labor. On the roads. If he wasn’t out on the days the others was, why they laid him off a bigger piece to finish and he had to do that. That was the law. They always done it in the fall of the year.
“In the fall of the year, it’s the prettiest place you’ve ever seen. When the leaves is colored . . . it’s beautiful to see the hills when it’s colored like that, brown and red and green and yeller. The pines always looks green and if the rest is all colored, the pines shows up.
“There was more big trees then, but the fields were cleaned up and tended. You can see there’s nothin’ cleaned up any more, ’cause I ain’t able to do it . . .”
Housework and farmin’ is all I done, never worked at nothin’ else. Eighteen hours out of every twenty-four. Out-of-doors and then in the house at night. I have worked out in the fodder field and carry it in some time after dark. We’d stack it by moonlight. Never got much rest on what little time I was in bed. (Laughs.)
You usually didn’t get much rest on Sunday, had to cook for ten children on Sunday. I’ve raised ten and I had eleven. Three meals a day I cooked on Sunday. I got so I couldn’t cook like I used to. I used to be out here just runnin’ and cookin’ those meals in a few minutes and fillin’ the table full. But my mind just jumps from here to there and I can’t do that no more. Just hard work, that’s all I ever knowed.
I can run circles around every girl I’ve got in the house today. I’m awful thankful for it, but I won’t hold up much longer. I’m a gittin’ down. Used to be I could stand and split wood all day long, but now I go out there and split a little while and it hurts the back of my legs to stoop over. But I done awful well I think.
I just don’t know. I was just raised an old hillbilly and I’ll die one. Radio, it’s sittin’ up there, but I cain’t hear too good. Don’t have a television. I say there’s too much foolishness on for me to watch. I hear a little about Vietnam. And I study a lot about it. But I have enough worry on my mind without listenin’ to that to worry more about. What was to be would be. No, I don’t guess I have a grandson in Vietnam now. Terry’s boy, I actually don’t know if he’s out of Vietnam or not.
They wasn’t much to think on when you didn’t have no education. I didn’t get half through the third reader, so I’ve got no education at all. Only five months of school. I just quit out until we got the fodder saved. Then it got so cold, I couldn’t go back. I’m just a flat old hillbilly. That’s the only way I know to talk and the only way I’ll ever try to talk.
There was fifteen in the family and we were raised in a log house. There wasn’t a window in the house. If we seen how to do anything in the winter, we done it by firelight. There wasn’t even a kerosene lamp. We had to keep the door open regardless of how cold it was. If you needed to work at somethin’ we either done it by the light of the fire in the grate or opened the door. We always kept a good fire.
That was the way I learnt to write. I’d get me a piece of clay dirt out of the cracks and write on the side of the log house. I couldn’t write a line when I was goin’ to school. Now that’s the truth.
Aunt Katherine’s nephew and his wife. On this morning, a piece of sun peers over the Cumberlands. “That’s young white oaks up there a growin’,” he says. “They’ll be there till the strip and auger
people pushes ’em down and they get diggin’ for lumber.”
His speech comes with difficulty, due to partial paralysis of his face and shortage of breath. Frequently during the conversation we take time out. He wears a hearing aid. She is hanging out the wash. A small dog runs about; a few chickens peck away.
“Minin’s about all the work here, outside highway work or farmin’ a little. My father started workin’ in the mines when he was eleven years old. I guess he was fifty-seven when he quit, he had to. He had to walk across the big mountain and it’d be late into the night when he’d come back. So we never got to see daddy but on Sunday.

JOE: I graduated from high school in 1930, November. I went to work in the mines. We worked for fifteen cents a ton. If we made a dollar and a half a day, we made pretty good money. You got up between three thirty and four in the morning. You’d start work about six. We usually got out around maybe dark or seven or eight, nine o‘clock. I come back as late as ten o’clock at night. Sometimes I just laid down to sleep, not even sleep—then wash up.
I just got short-winded and just couldn’t walk across the street. I’m better now than I used to be. The doctor advised me to quit work. My heart got bad to where I couldn’t get enough oxygen. March of ’68 I quit. They turned me down for black lung. I’m paid through Social Security. My old uncle, he retired forty-nine years old. He’s been dead a long time now. Guess he had too much sand.
My hearin’ . . . It coulda been affected with so much noise. I was tampin’ up, shootin’ the coal down, just behind the machine. I worked that continuous miner. That made lotsa noise. This hearin’ aid cost me $395.
I think the United Mine Workers has let us down a little bit. I think they sold us out is what I do. They teamed up with the operators, I think.
SUSIE: I went to school with a young boy and he got mashed up in the mines. He was about eighteen years old when he got killed.
JOE: Oh, I remember lots of accidents. I guess there was eight or nine men killed while I worked at one. These truck mines I worked in was all. They wasn’t union mines. The strip and the auger about got ’em all shut down right now. I have a nephew of mine run a mine. He worked about seventeen men. They all gone to unemployment now.
Yeah, I was born in an old log cabin here. I had a great-great-great-grandfather or somethin’ fought that Revolution. Grandfather Fields and his brothers was in the Civil War. One on each side of it. My grandfather owned 982 acres in here. He sold his minerals
for twenty-seven and a half cents an acre.
You’re in one of the richest areas in the world and some of the poorest people in the world. They’s about twenty-eight gas and oil wells. They have one here they claim at least a three-million-dollar-a-year gas well. One of the men that works for the gas company said they valued it at twenty-five million dollars, that one well. They offered a woman seventy-five dollars on the farm that the gas well’s just laid on, for destroyin’ half an acre of her place to set that well up.
They can do that legally because they have the mineral rights—broad form deed. Eighteen eighty-nine, my grandfather sold this, everything known and all that might be found later—gas, oil, coal, clay, stone . . . My grandfather and grandmother signed it with two X’s. They accepted the farmin’ rights. Company can dig all your timber, all your soil off, uncover everything, just to get their coal. Go anywhere they want to, drill right in your garden if they want to.
They took bulldozers and they tore the top off the ground. I couldn’t plow it or nothin’ where they left it. Come through right by that walnut tree. I’ve got corn this year, first year I raised it. About four years since they left. Nice corn over there. I had to move a lot of rock where they took the bulldozers.
They threatened my wife with trespassin’ here because she called up the water pollution man, the gas and oil company did. (Laughs.) If the oil runs down this creek, ii’d kill the fish and everything in it. And I had a lot of chickens to die, too, from drinkin’ that oil.
SUSIE: When they come through with them bulldozers and tear it up like that, the dirt from it runs down to our bottom land and it ruins the water. Our drinkin’ water gets muddy. So we don’t have much of a chance, don’t look like.
Our boy in the Navy when he comes back, he says all he can see is the mountain tore up with bulldozers. Even the new roads they built, they’s debris on it and you can’t hardly get through it sometimes. I guess that’s what they send our boys off to fight for, to keep ‘em a free country and then they do to us like that. Nothin’ we can do about it. He said it was worse here than it was over in Vietnam. Four times he’s been in Vietnam. He said this was a worse toreup place than Vietnam. He said, “What’s the use of goin’ over there an’ fightin’ and then havin’ to come back over here an’ pay taxes on somethin’ that’s torn up like that?”
JOE: If we don’t organize together, why these big companies is just gonna take anything they want. That’s the only chance on earth we got. It’s all gone over to the rich man. Even the President. And we don’t have a governor.
SUSIE: Everybody talk about it all the time. Especially Aunt Katherine up here, that’s all me an’ her talk about—what they done to us. My mother and father sold all their land out, where my mother’s buried. Company said they sold the mineral to some other company and they was goin’ to auger it. They won’t have to dig the holes for the ones if they’re goin’ into my mother’s grave. ’Cause there won’t be enough left of ’em to dig a hole for. We’re not gonna let it happen to my mother’s grave because there’s seven of us children and I know that five of us will stay right there and see that they don’t do that.
They said, men from the company, we’d get a road up to the cemetery that’s on top of the hill. I said, “Well, it won’t be any use goin’ up there, because there won’t be any dead up there. There’ll just be tombstones settin’ there. Because the coal is under the graves.” An old preacher down there, they augered under the grave where his wife is buried. And he’s nearly blind and he prayed an’ everything.
It’s something to think about, that a man to make a few dollars would go through and under a cemetery like that. Not even respecting the dead. You can’t talk to ‘em. They won’t talk to you about it. They walk off and leave you. They know they’re doin’ wrong.
Our son just come back from Vietnam, he went to work for a strip mine. We told him we wouldn’t allow him to work for them and stay home. So he quit. He was tellin’ me yesterday, looks like he’s gonna have to go back to work. I said, “Well, do you want me to pack your clothes tonight or do you want to wait until morning to get ’em? ‘Cause,” I said, “when you start workin’ for the strip mines, you’re not comin’ back here. I’m not responsible for anything that happens to ya.” Don’t want none of ours in that, no way.
You and Joe have very little money. Life is rough and life is hard . . . Your son could pick up about fifty dollars a day
. . .
SUSIE: From forty-five to eighty a day.
JOE: He’s an equipment operator.
SUSIE: Yeah, he worked and he made good. But we didn’t want him in that. He was gonna get killed over there and we wouldn’t be responsible for no doctor bills and no funeral bills for him—if he was gonna do that kind of work. Then he said he had to make a livin’ some way. Well, he’s gonna have to go back to the army, look like. I said, “Go to the army and come back. Maybe you can get a job then.” He said he didn’t want to go to the army. And he went to work for one of his cousins, night watchin’. He makes $150 a week. But he told me yesterday that they were gonna close down over there and he was gonna have to go back and work for the strip mines. I said, “When you start work, I’ll pack your clothes. You’re not gonna stay here.”
We sent him to school for him to take this heavy equipment. I worked and cooked over at the school, helped send him there. I said, “I’m not sendin’ you to school to come out here and go to work for these strip mines.” I’d rather see him in Vietnam than see him doin’ strip jobs.
I just think if it’s not stopped by officials and governor and all, we’re just gonna have to take guns and stop it. When they come to your land . . . We got tax receipts here dated back to 1848 that the Haynes and Fields paid tax on this place. Do you think we should let some money grabber come here and destroy it? For nothin’? And have to move out?
JOE: They sweated my grandfathers out of it. Millions of dollars . . .
His home is Boonville, Indiana. It is an area of newly built one-family dwellings: pleasantly arbored, front lawns uniformly well-trimmed, two-car garages to the rear. It was somewhat difficult to distinguish this house from the others, though a good distance separated them.
It is said young Lincoln studied law in this town, along the Indiana-Kentucky border. Today the natural landscape of this region is overwhelmed by slag heaps, huge banks of shale. It is strip mine country; one of the earliest.
BOOK: Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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