Truman and Me (part 5) by Julian Martin

We moved to Detroit after Dad’s eye was put out in a coal mine accident.

In his new job, Dad cut deep into his thigh with a sander, and that sent us back to West Virginia. I did half a year of Kindergarten in Detroit, but when we got back to Emmons I started in mid-year of the first grade. My teacher, Mrs. Morris, lived on the next farm about a mile up Big Coal River. She came by on my first day and walked the mile with me to the Emmons Grade School.

After the first day I walked with Aunt Julia and Uncle Truman. Julia was in the sixth grade and Truman was in the fourth.

Lacking electricity like the rest of the area, our one-room Emmons Grade School was heated with coal in a pot-bellied stove, water came from a well, and there was an outside toilet. I was new and shy, which was not lost on at least one of the older boys. Out on the playground during recess, he said something to me, a word for female genitalia, in front of the other kids. I was embarrassed because I knew I was being made fun of, but I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Uncle Truman pulled me away from the embarrassment.

I was sent to the blackboard on the other side of the room where Aunt Julia was sitting—she whispered the answers that I was supposed to put on the board. I didn’t feel connected to the city children characters in our reading books. “Run Jim, run” and “See Jim run” didn’t inspire or connect with me. Jim and his sister Judy wore nice clothes and their parents were always dressed up. They were a bland family. Jim and Judy’s dad in a suit coming home from a day at the office looked nothing like my dad when he came home from a coal mine or a construction job.

I didn’t learn to read in the first grade and neither did the other two first graders. Not being able to read caused me lots of trouble when, a month into my second grade year, we moved to St. Albans. I was called on to read from the same book we had at Emmons. I remembered parts that Mrs. Morris had read to us and brazenly recited them as I pretended to read, but I was looking at the wrong page. My first and only F was in second grade reading.

It was a traumatic time.

My mother tried to teach me to read using a switch. It is hard to learn to read through tears, sobbing. I have enjoyed a lifetime of reading which is testimony that I survived the stresses of second grade.

Somewhere between ages eight and ten, I started going to the farm by myself. I was never afraid on those solo bus and train trips from our home in St. Albans to the farm. It never occurred to me that there was any danger, and there wasn’t. I walked four blocks through Ordnance Park over to Route 60 and for a nickel and caught the Interurban bus to downtown St. Albans. I walked the few blocks from the bus station to the train station, bought a ticket and climbed on the train that went up Big Coal River.

Something akin to the theory of relativity fascinated me as I sat on the train before leaving the station. A train headed for Huntington sat beside my train that was headed in the opposite direction. One of the trains moved but for a moment I couldn’t tell which train it was. Did my train move or the other one? It was more magic. One of the trains stopped and a few seconds later the illusion was repeated.

“Do not flush while the train is in the station,” warned the sign above the commode. I found out why when I did flush—all of what I had just done went straight down onto the area between the tracks. It was fun to hold the flush handle down and watch the wooden ties and rock ballast fly by. After that discovery I paid closer attention to the space between the tracks whenever I walked there.

I was in a safe community cocoon. There were always other people waiting for the bus, and the kind train conductor knew Charlie and Grandma and made sure I got off at Gripp which is across the river from the farm. The conductor enjoyed calling Gripp “suitcase” to see if I would laugh. From the train at “suitcase” I walked on a winding path through a corn field to the river’s edge and yelled for someone to set me across the river.

Charlie often put me to work just as soon as I got out of the boat and to the top of the river bank. Once it was bugging potatoes. Truman and I made a game of it. We knocked the potato bugs into a can and turned leaves over to find their yellow egg clusters and squashed the eggs between two pieces of wood. At the end of bugging for the day, we took our catch to the house and put it in a metal pie plate on top of the hot cook stove. We watched the bugs dance and fry — we had no feelings for potato bugs.

Grandma and Charlie told me about the heroes of the coal mine wars. It was word-of- mouth history. I remember sitting at the dinner table and Charlie saying, “When they killed Sid Hatfield that was the last straw.” Grandma said that a woman they called “Mother” came to talk to the miners—she was speaking of Mother Jones, the famous labor organizer. United Mine Worker heroes Sid Hatfield, Bill Blizzard, Frank Keeney, Fred Mooney, Cesco Estep, Mother Jones and the Battle of Blair Mountain were never mentioned in my twelve years of West Virginia public school education.

Despite the fact that we are on opposite ends of politics and religion, Truman and I are still friends. He spends half of his time in Florida and the other half at the farm. It is great fun when we get together and reminisce.

At this writing he is 78 and I am 75.

(Editor’s note: Visit the Daily Kosand many other “Google-able” websites for more on Blair Mountain and its significance in the history of West Virginia and labor relations in the United States.)

“The Battle of Blair Mt. in Logan County was referred to as a civil war and depicted as fully 10,000 men – and some estimates to twice that number – were involved as the two armies began exchanging shots along a ten-mile front. George Washington had fewer soldiers at the Battle of Trenton, the engagement which changed the course of the American Revolution.

On Sept. 4, 1921, with more than 6,000 federal soldiers assisted by 20 airplanes ……the miners eventually surrendered when faced with the alternative of fighting against U.S. troops. Hundreds of men were indicted by a Logan County Grand Jury on charges of treason and murder.” (pp71-72, Don’t Buy Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide, by Allen H. Loughry II)

More historic railroad images from St. Albans and other communities available at WVRails.net.

Mr. Blankenship? The call’s for you.

When I heard the news that Rolling Stone was profiling Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, it seemed like a gift from God.  Finally, the nation and the world would get a look at what West Virginia has been battling for decades.

Bring it on.

I started taking Rolling Stone magazine in my early teens.  My friend Joanna gave it to me as a gift for my birthday, and continued it for a few years before I picked it up on my own.  It’s been several years since I subscribed, but I still buy it from the stand from time to time.  Honestly, it was Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous that brought me back, and I’m grateful.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you really owe it to yourself.  Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson. Anna Paquin – wow.  The writing is great and the performances genuine.  I’d pay full price in the theater again just to hear Frances tell Billy over a pay phone, “Russell, it’s not too late to become a person of substance.”

What RS does better than anyone is deliver profiles of famous people that reveal the human being submerged in the image.  After reading such a piece, I traditionally need to spend a few days shaking off the unpleasant feeling that everything I’ve read prior about the featured person is obscenely incomplete and unfair.  I’m not saying RS writers don’t have agendas, because everyone does whether they acknowledge it or not; but profiles in Rolling Stone are difficult to categorize as manipulative.  When one reviews the sequence and elements of the story, rarely if ever will much emerge beyond undisputed facts and the verbatim reflections of the people directly involved in the story.  I find RS writers often surprise themselves with the degree of empathy and connection they build with people who, profiled differently and in ways less complete, are not hard to despise.  The profile of Blankenship met all of my expectations in this regard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are stories about Blankenship’s childhood, youth, and young adulthood.  His now infamous “investment” in (then) West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard is reviewed, and lest you forget how bad that smelled you can catch another nauseating whiff here.    Blankenship’s memos directing miners to ignore safety violations, his crushing of the United Mine Workers in 1985, and his swanky mansion with its own water supply piped in are all presented and chronologically explained.  I knew most of these things, but something about having it all recounted as event after event pulls together a story most of us have been trying not to put together.  It’s just too awful.

If one wanted to dismiss much of said story as “just business”  (which I hear all the time), it is still impossible not to be jarred by the consolidation of immoral corporate conduct that has had such devastating and irreparable consequences to so many people.  I don’t toss around the word “evil,” but a better word is hard to find.  I try not to describe human beings as evil, but there are actions that are driven by a system of rewards I think reasonably could be termed evil.  Consider:

During the 198os, the company (Massey Energy) injected more than 1.4 billion gallons of slurry underground — seven times the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster this spring.  According to the lawsuit, Massey knew the ground was cracked, which would allow the toxic waste to leach into nearby drinking water.  But injecting the slurry underground saved Massey millions of dollars a year.  “The BP oil spill was an accident.  This was an intentional environmental catastrophe.” (p. 88)

All told, Jeff Goodell’s portrait of Blankenship is something that will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time.  It resonates with the old saying, “Man is not punished for sin, but by sin.”  Goodell is certainly not out to paint Blankenship as a hero, but there is a surprising degree of pain in his conclusion that “the dark lord of coal country” did not make choices that could have lifted him up as a visionary with the potential to lead his people out of darkness.  Blankenship was a local boy with street cred in Appalachia.  Goodell believes Blankenship could have been a voice of reason and sanity about coal’s future, about energy transition and business ethics.  Goodell makes the case that he could have saved lives — hundreds of lives if not more.

I think Goodell’s conclusion is romantic, and fails to take into account the fact that Blankenship rose to power and influence based on a ruthless and cold profits-only mentality for which he was richly rewarded.  It seems slightly flawed to ask why Blankenship didn’t use his power for good when in fact he would have had no power at all with Massey if it were not for his utter disregard for human life and health, both now and in the future.

Still, it is impossible to know.  Nothing scrapes at the human heart like lost potential and doors that are forever closed.  RS has a small collage of photographs of Blankenship over the years on page 86.  Perhaps it’s the Christmas season, but when I look at the yawning canyon between the handsome senior class president and the bloated and dead-eyed coal baron 40 years later, it breaks my heart.

I wonder what Frances would say to Don on a pay phone?

Image credits: Think Progress (miners sign), The Consumerist (pay ‘phone), Almost Famous (Frances McDormand)

Following the publication of the December 9 issue of Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced Don Blankenship’s retirement as Chief Executive Officer.