Stronger than memory

22 Jan

One morning at six my alarm goes off.  I wake up, pull on a pair of work pants and shirt, pick up a lunch can, and walk out into the streets of the Red Row.  The backyards of my neighborhood are dotted with outhouses and coal sheds.  A plume of black smoke rises from every chimney.  The unpaved streets are full of men dressed like me, each carrying a lunch pail under his arm.  The year is 1928, thirty-six years before I was born,

At the bottom of Hudson Street , I meet my grandfather.  He is only a little older than I am.  And even though he died at seventy, when I was only ten, I recognize him immediately by the thick glasses that blur his eyes huge, and by the big forehead that rises, like mine, above his glasses.

“Good morning, Papa,” I say.

“Good morning, boy,” he says.  His accent is so thick that I can hardly understand.  He has lived in Canada for less than ten years, I realize, and he came without a word of English.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” I say.  I look in through the window of my grandfather’s kitchen and see my grandmother, six months pregnant with my mother.  In ten years, she will be dead from tuberculosis, but this morning she appears as vigorous as any woman her age.  She is washing apples under the water pump at the sink, working the handle up and down.

“All begin beautiful, boy,” my grandfather says.

As we walk to the pit, our steel-toed boots scrape the gravel.  We can hear the wheels and gears of the elevator working in the shaft.

When we pass through the gates and into the mine yard, my heart jumps.  I’ve only seen this place in pictures.  By the time I was born, the coal boom had passed and most of the operations had been shut down.  But these buildings, this smoke stack, the wheels that turn on this big elevator, these have been written on my mind by something stronger than memory.

“You’re frightened, boy,” my grandfather says.  “I won’t tell you not to be.”

In the change house we don what we’ll need for work.  The boots, the socks, the coveralls, the gloves.  We check out our equipment from the tool room.  The hard hats, the lamps, the shovels, the axes.  We gather with the rest of the day shift men at the mouth of the pit, smoking final cigarettes.  The sun shines down on us in rays between the beams and cables and pipes that run in all directions above our heads.

The wheels over the giant elevator twist.  A dozen men before of us walk onto the platform and drop from sight.  We move ahead, and twelve more descend.  Cables quiver.  A platform swings into view.  “I wish this could be different,” my grandfather says.  We step forward with the next twelve and disappear from the surface of the earth.

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