Of Time Past and Tennessee Ernie Ford
I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine.
I loaded sixteen tons of number nine coal.
The straw boss said, “Well, bless my soul!”
You load sixteen tons, what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt.
Saint Peter don’t you call me, I can’t go!
I owe my soul to the Company Store.
I come by my Democratic roots honestly. My people came from the coalfields, the mills, the street brick kilns, and the iron foundries on either side of the Ohio River. I know what a Company Store is, why it kept you down and made the mine owner even more money, and why it still exists today—even though we call it Wal-Mart.
I doubt many of my readers know this. It’s like living in Chauncey, Ohio. Chauncey is just down the road from Millfield, where the Millfield Mining Disaster, entombing a set of very fine coal miners, happened in 1930. The air around there, and on one side or the other of Mount Nebo hasn’t been quite right ever since, shimmery and shivery and just wrong. A very challenging place, actually, to be out in at night.
Chauncey was the rail station. The mine owners tried to break the Union by Lock Out and Scabs, and some very good boys, with a lot of muscle from working the mines, would do shifts in the railway station. If a stranger got off the train, one of the boys would engage him in conversation about the name of the town. If the stranger didn’t know that it’s actually pronounced “Chancy”, several of the boys together would earnestly urge him to get back on the train and not return. He usually did.
Most of them, when they got too old to work the mines, died of Black Lung, the air slowly squeezed out of them day by day until the heart gives out. It’s a long slow slide and an unpleasant death. Back then there was no oxygen to help you along, just Mason Jars of White Lightning made in your neighbor’s basement still, (the Revenue Agents couldn’t pronounce Chauncey, either) and maybe a little opium paragoric, to ease the pain until the druggist insisted you’d signed the book too many times.
My father, William Marshall, remembered the newsreels of the big UAW organizing drive at Ford Motors in River Rouge, Michigan—how the union president, Walter Reuther, was beaten to a pulp by a quartet of company goons (“special deputies of the county sheriff” if anyone asked) in the middle of the River Rouge Bridge while the cameras were rolling.
My grandfather, Joe McNelly, rode his bike every day to the foundry in Ironton, prayed to God in thanks at every meal because he had spontaneously remitted from TB, chewed Red Man tobacco all his life, and kept a .32 gun in the dresser drawer. Once he had a neighbor, who let what we would call today a Pit Bull run the streets, where it snapped at Joe on his bike. He asked the neighbor nicely, twice, to keep the dog in. Then, when the neighbor didn’t get the message, Old Joe dropped the .32 into his coat pocket, and blew the beast’s brains out in the street.
He had a grip like the bite of a horse far into his late age, and it took four heart attacks and a bout of pneumonia to kill him at 89. In Joe's last days in the hospital he had the habit of patting the rear ends of the more nubile nurses. It wasn’t a politically correct time when he died, by any means.
My uncle by marriage, Lloyd Vanderlier, was a raw-boned, square headed Dutchman who worked the steel mill in Muskegon, Michigan. Van smoked unfiltered Ralieghs (a tobacco aroma rougher than a corn cob in an outhouse, as I remember it), and could punch a man harder than a mule could kick. He didn’t settle many disputes behind the mill, as guys were wont to do in those days, because the ones he did settle, he settled quickly. Nobody gave Van guff even after his hair turned completely white in his final days at the mill. He was born late enough to have oxygen for his emphensema when he died. He was carrying his portable bottle of it when they found him by his lawn mower, the motor running, and the lawn half finished.
And I myself, in college, knew Allen Zak, the neighbor of my best friend, who had been down South in the Freedom Riding days, and had not only been on the Birmingham March, but had actually photographed it extensively. It remained on his proof sheets in his darkroom for fifteen years until another friend of mine, who had enough sense to realize that Allen was sitting on an important piece of history, got the Art Museum to sponsor reprinting of those extraordinary pictures, done by a man whose life was at risk every minute he was south of the Mason-Dixon line.
Then there were the very quiet men who, in their youth about 1933, had come to the conclusion that Marx was right. They didn’t say much about it unless they knew you really well. They had lost jobs in their middle age for what they had believed in when young. This had taught them to be quiet. I'll be quiet still and not tell you their names.
Finally, I, myself, spent a few days in early May of 1970 facing down billy clubs and fixed bayonets with nothing but pieces of street brick and my fingernails. To this day I still can't smell flowering sorb without the association of tear gas.
All of these men, even the blacklisted ones, had a better life in the years when I was growing up than any but the very rich before the Great Liberal Compromise brought to us by Franklin Roosevelt. They knew why we had such things like Social Security and Bank Deposit Insurance. None who didn’t live back then really know why now. Some wish to destroy this part of it or that part of it or the other part of it. And they have already succeeded, since 1980, in destroying much of it.
This November, I had hoped to win one last time for the fast fading memory of these men, and of men like them. I didn’t. I lost. We all lost, though some of us still don’t know it.
So when I hear pundits whining today about how “uncivil” our politics are, how “polarized” we are, and how we lack “bipartisan unity”, I think about all those men of my youth and I laugh up my sleeve. If they were still around, they would laugh openly and loudly.
I was born one morning in the drizzling rain.
Fighting-and-Trouble is my middle name.
I was raised in a canebrake by an old mama lion.
Ain’t no high-toned woman make me walk no line.