As all of you know
we were raised in a small coal mining village on the banks of the Ohio
river. The only road that entered our town was Route Seven. There was a
coal mine on both ends of the town so it didn't make any difference
which way the wind blew - it was still smoky and soot-filled. You
didn't know whether the day was cloudy or sunny. The ladies had trouble
hanging out the laundry because of the conditions. The clothes would
get dirty before they had a chance to dry.
Summertime was supposed to be fun and games, no school or homework (not
that I did much of that anyway). Summertime meant picking coal. You had
to pick enough coal to last through the winter months. Initially, only
Pat and Nick had to go up and pick coal, and my job was to take them
lunch and drinks. So around noon mom would call and I would get on our
bicycle (we only had one for 3 boys) and pedal to the mine. It was
about 2 miles and uphill all the way. Mom would send up a quart of
cool-aid with the sandwiches for Pat and Nick. Now remember it was hot
and it was uphill, so I would sip on the cool-aid, and by the time I got
to Pat and Nick about half was gone. Initially I told them that was all
mom sent, but they could see the red or green on my lips. After
complaining to mom about my drinking their cool-aid, mom would send a
quart for them and a pint for me. Aren't mom's smart and clever.
Well, as time went by my fun and games came to an end and I also had to
go help with the picking. Let me tell you this coal picking was very
competitive . Every family with an able-bodied son and/or a lot of
daughters were up there picking coal. It was not unusual to see 15 or
20 kids all fighting for position when the coal dumping vehicle came up.
Some days it was pretty busy and other days very little. On the “very
little” days, we would try to find a cool spot and just relax. On busy
days you didn't have time. You were picking or bailing.
Now I know you don't know what "bailing" means. There are two ways to
pick the coal. Some used a sack and others preferred to "bail". If you
used a sack it had to have a stiff liner so it would stay open while you
picked thus you could use both hands. If it wasn't lined you could only
pick about half of what the others did. Now I preferred to "bail". What
this is - you pick out an area against a hill and you would fence off
"your" area. You would fence in the area by putting slate around it so
the coal would not roll into other areas selected by your competitors.
Now you’ve heard the expression "honor among thieves". Well, once you
established an area, no one would trespass or try to get any of your
coal. Also, once you started picking and throwing other pickers had to
be careful or they would get hit. There were a few minor fights from
being hit but nothing serious. When the three of us picked, we had a
slight advantage. I took the top part of the dump, Nick the middle, and
Pat the bottom. In this manner we controlled the hill fairly well.
Now it took about 26 to 30 bushels of coal to make a load. When you got
that, you would hire a truck for 50 cents to haul it home. We considered
that a ton of coal and we needed about 30 to 33 tons to get through the
winter. Now if it was a slow day and you didn't get a truck load,
someone had to stay with the coal you had or else some one would steal
it. Being the youngest I normally got to go home and sleep in my own
bed. Now remember what they dumped was not pure coal. It was a
combination of slate, good coal, and bone coal. Bone coal was useable
but it would not burn and heat properly so you would avoid that. It
would normally take about two months to gather in enough coal for the
winter. When we got enough, some would continue to pick and then sell
the coal for two dollars. However, you had to pay the truck driver so
if you had to work two days for a load you made 75 cents a day. Not what
you would call good pay.
The best part of the whole summer was going down to the Ohio river after
working all day to clean up and have some sun. It must have been a
sight to behold, 10 to 15 guys bare and washing. We never bothered to
put on a swimming suit. Well those days were good days. We would pick
in the sun, cold, and rain because we knew we were helping our families
out. Growing up poor wasn't all that bad.