Sunday, December 18, 2016

December Memories

Dear Reader,
It's 2016. I'm reviewing a blog post from December 2010. Christmas draws the Bussey children together in special ways of the heart--even as we age and can't see each other at Christmas anymore, our hearts and memories are always in unison during this cold December holiday. Cold was different in those days in that place, wasn't it?

December 12, 2010
I'm thinking of winter in David,Kentucky, my Appalachian Coal Camp home. By now we would have exchanged names for gifts at school with a price limit of 50 cents. Mother always tried to buy something fun for us to give--like a wind-up toy or a good rubber ball, for example. She complained if we got a box of chocolate covered cherries.

The Company Store would have filled the upstairs area with all kinds of Christmas toys. Virgil Warrix, Ruth Burchett, Grace Moore,Clayton Wills, not to mention the store staff, the PECCO office staff, and first Claude Allen then Lily Price, our post-masters (we weren't pc back then), and George, the butcher probably purely dreaded time of year. The oiled hardwood steps went straight up beside the butcher shop so George would have heard every step and all our excited shouts.

Remember all those little wind up toys that scooted all over the place until they wound down. Erector sets. Guns, bows and arrows, cowboy and cowgirl suits, and those beautiful dolls I loved so much. All we could do was dream about what we might get!

Miners' wives could shop there and "charge it". The charge would be taken out of the miner's next check. Daddy hated this because sometimes, more often than not, he'd "go in the hole". His check would be Zero. We dreaded payday because we also charged Bobby Pins, Kotex, Lucky Star filler paper (everyone saved Lucky Stars), writing tablets, pop, and sometimes, lunch at the fountain. Mother was a little too lenient and we took advantage when we could. She didn't worry until payday, when Daddy would discover how far 'in the hole" he'd gone. Then the dreaded fight. The Fountain __Ethel Wills, Ora Bussey, Dot Crauswell, Carolyn Howard, Pattie Clark (Mollette), and others who worked there over the years--made the best chili and hot dogs ever. Later in life, I've decided that the great flavor was also enhanced by wrapping the hot-dogs in waxed paper --such a specia taste. .

Of course other days, we walked home to a lunch of cheese sandwiches, fried bologna sandwiches,canned pork and beans, or wieners sliced in half and fried brown in a skillet of bacon grease. Delicious on bread with a little mustard or mayonnaise. We loved the fountain, though, and the few times a month we dared go in and say "charge it".

Once a girlfriend, took a whole gang of us in and charged our lunches to her Daddy. She was a little rebel and this was a daresome thing to do!

We wrote lists for Santa and sent them up the stove pipes of our Warm Morning coal heater.I asked for stuff like diamond rings, gowns, watches, and whatever doll was the big name that year. One year it was bride dolls. I never got these requests, but Mother always managed to get us something. Once we were past the age of "believing' we didn't get special gifts. Maybe one little thing was wrapped for us. It was a great milestone in high school to have a boyfriend at Christmastime, knowing they would have to buy you a gift. I bet some of them had hard times buying those gifts. Mother was generous with Daddy's money and if our 25 cents per hour babysitting money wouldn't cover it, she'd help us buy presents for our boyfriends-if we had one!

We could always count on our socks hanging on the wall to be filled with oranges, apples, walnuts, saw-log peppermint candy, horehound candy for Daddy.The nuts weren't hulled, of course and we could never find a hammer, so we got heavy rocks from outside and cracked the nuts right on the living room floor. There were nut hulls and orange peels everywhere. We enjoyed the Christmas goodies. Mother even let us skate in the house, anything to keep us occupied.

My older brother, Rodney, had his Christmas fun cut short when, as a mere 9 year old, he started playing Santa for us three younger ones. Not fair, but he has fond memories of doing so much for us. I think Mother asked him to help because he was so kind and sensitive and she knew he'd understand. Reminds me of a poem mother wrote about her getting a doll with torn lace because, as her father told her, "Santa knew you'd understand, honey". So many life's lessons we learned through all these things.

Daddy made sure we got a real coconut to share. He poked a hole in it so we could drink the "monkey pee" inside. He would laugh and laugh after we drank it and he told us what it was.

Always, just when Mother couldn't handle one more thing, Daddy would come through the door with a big "Boo" and proudly deliver her a freshly severed hogs head--a gift from one of our Middle Creek farm families. Don't ask me how she learned to make "souse meat", but she did it. I've since learned that "sousing" is an old English tradition and considered a true delicacy. I don't remember any of us helping her with this Christmas project for Daddy. The older ones usually have different memories. Another Christmas delicacy she made, just for Daddy, was oyster stew. We had never tasted oysters and none of us would try the dish.Daddy loved it, though, and she made it only at Christmas.

Mother always decorated the porch for Christmas. She'd go into the hills in Mid-December and cut pine branches to nail all around the front door and the front porch banister. She worked really hard at this and we had to help her. One year blue lights were all the rage and Mother got some--probably "charged" them.We loved those blue lights, too. There was no electrical outlet on the porch, so Mother ran the cord through the living room window. She never won the annual prize, but we voted for her anyway.

She put pine branches around the living room bookshelf--a luxury item built by Ashland Shepherd, the Company carpenter into some of the houses. We were proud of that amenity. Our time-payment World Book encyclopedias were displayed prominently.Over the years, We read every word in them, cut out pictures for school reports and Mother never seemed to mind that we wore them out. She thought it helped us learn.

One year Mother & Mrs Wilson (Leona--we always used the proper Mr. and Mrs.) learned to make candles by whipping heated paraffin wax and mixing in gold or silver glitter. They made all shapes and sizes by molding them into cups, glasses, tin cans, milk cartons, and anything else they could find. I bet Mrs. Wilson kept her house pretty neat but Mother kept the house messed up and discovered she really enjoyed creating things. She would place these beautiful, glittery candles throughout the pine decor and we were always wondering what she would do next. Aerosol spray was invented in the mid 40s, I think, and when gold and silver spray paint hit the company store in the early 50s,wow, did they have a great time. Christmas took on a whole new shine! They even picked "weeds" up in the hills, sprayed them beautiful colors, created arrangements and sold some to a florist in Prestonsburg. Big Time!,

Nights were cold in December. Ice would freeze on the inside of the windows. There were no storm windows in those days. We had heavy quilts to keep us warm and usually a sibling or two helping warm up the bed--remember when someone would take a little of your "warm spot" and you had to lie on pure cold for a while. Mother hung quilts over the doors between the living room and the kitchen to divert most of the heat in the direction of the bedrooms. There was no heat in any of the rooms except the living room. There sat the Warm Morning coal stove taking up an entire corner, but leaving enough room so that we could sit--all six of us, I guess--up against the wall behind it. That corner was warmer than anywhere in the house and we liked to put on our socks and shoes there. Sometimes Mother handed us a plate of cornbread and gravy to eat back there, sometimes a biscuit.

Mother would arise about 3AM and sneak out of bed. (Daddy would be upset if he woke up and found her gone, so this was a big deal). She'd stoke up the fire, take down the quilt barrier and stoke up the laundry stove in the kitchen. The laundry stove heated our water and she managed to get it a little warm before we got up. She'd make Daddy's lunch for his bucket and brew their coffee by pouring boiling water into the wonderful old drip-o-later (I still use one) and find some quiet time-her favorite time of the day-for her writing and a cigarette or two before waking us up.To this day, I don't think Daddy knew Mother was a writer and an artist--he just knew she was eccentric and broke all the norms.

In grade school, we walked to school with headscarves on and our bangs would freeze. I'd love to see a picture of us in those headscarves...looking like the rural women of Bosnia and the Ukraine--not like the look Jackie Kennedy made famous. Can you believe we wore headscarves?

In high school, the bus ran at 7 AM--always before daylight. We got to Prestonsburg about 7:30-7:45 and waited at the Black Cat drive in for classes to start around 8:30. Those mornings are memorable. The boys with money played the jukebox. We had a quarter for lunch at the cafeteria but if we spent a dime on a coke, we only had 15 cents left and couldn't afford to eat. Tough decisions. Bruce Howard, my future brother-in-law, always had extra money and sometimes played the jukebox for us or bought me a coke occasionally. When brother Rod had money to spare, he made sure I had some too. I was so proud of Bruce & Rodney--both Black Cat varsity athletes and fine boys..

The David Middle Creekers were always the first to arrive at PHS and the last to leave--rarely getting home before 5 Pm, when it was already dark in the winter. The bus would pull in at the Company Store and we were always glad if it was still open so we could run in and buy our necessities. I know Grace Moore and Ruth Burchett dreaded us. There was no privacy for us when shopping because we had to go up to the clerk behind the counter and ask for everything.

Once I had to ask for a box of Kotex and was so embarrassed I told Ruth, "They're not for me, they're for Toby". Rod said he felt the same way once when Mother told him to ask Ruth if they had anymore "chalkies". I won't elaborate but home some of you may remember what a "chalkie" was.

So, December is reminding me of cold days, cold house, icicles hanging on the front porch, snow cream, sleigh rides down Boy Scout Cabin cabin hill, socks for gloves, childhood fun, hard work, Mother's creativity, who will receive gifts, who won't have any, the company store, and "going in the hole". Through it all we learned there were people less fortunate than we and that Christmas was for giving to others. Somehow we managed that too.

Thanks for letting me share these December thoughts.
All that's left is life,

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Cuddle Doon

"The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi' muckle fash an' din,
"Oh, try and sleep, ye waukrife rogues,
Your faither's comin'in."

My mother, Nova Hicks Bussey, had a great talent for reciting poetry from memory. She was expressive in the classical sense and made each poem come alive. After each recitation, she held us, me for sure, spellbound with stories of how the poem applied to life. We learned of the grief suffered by The Village Blacksmith--a very strong, feeling man. And, the aging man recalling the regret of the little girl who surpassed him in a spelling bee--Mother found many good lessons in School Days--after all, how often is it that someone unselfishly wants you to succeed, even at their own loss?

Little Nell taught us that mothers love all their children the same, whether they are lazy, industrious, helpful,or sullen. At the end of this poem, Mother would ask,

"Now, which child did the mother love best?"
We'd shout, "Little Nell!"
"No" mother would reassure us, "She loved them all the same".

What a relief to me, an obstinate child who yearned to be loved the same as the others.

Back to Cuddle Doon. How did Mother learn to recite it in the proper dialect? Over my life, I've often bragged how Mother could recite Cuddle Doon in the Gaelic or Scottish. I've asked many people if they know this poem. No one I talked to ever had.

They never heed a word I speak.
I try to gie a froon.
But aye I hap them up, an' cry,
"Oh, bairnies cuddle doon!"

The mother has her hands full with Jamie, Rab, and Tam as, at the end of a long day, she coaxes them to go to sleep before their father comes in from work. Mother wanted us to understand how it was with herself and her 6 children. I never asked Mother how she learned this poem. Most of her selections were from her youth when memorizing poems was a standard educational tool.

We studied poetry and memorized too, but none of my teachers ever mentioned Cuddle Doon. Teachers had their own biases of course. For example, a high school English teacher--in the 50s of course--wouldn't let me recite Anabelle Lee because Poe was an alcoholic.

I have wondered if the verses were handed down from her ancestors who came into Virginia from Ireland, Scotland, and England in the late 1700s. They traveled into the isolated, beautiful hills of Appalachian East Kentucky where they chose to settle, drawn to the lush, green mountains that reminded them of home and to the seclusion of the hollows and creeks that promised they could remain independent in their new homeland.

Just a reflection: In Thomas Hardy novels, characters often use words and phrases that I find familiar and similar to those found in Appalachian East Kentucky. I have determined that "hain't" and "ain't", drilled out of us as children,mean two different things and make logical sense when used in Hardy's native contexts. Of course, we, in order to be perceived as literate, learned modern day English.

Why did I not ever ask Mother where she learned Cuddle Doon?

Recently I landed quite a treasure trove of books from brother Rod and his wife, Helen. I was overjoyed! At home, I gathered all the books around me and began browsing--so many treasures. There was one of my favorite books,The Haj, >in hardback!I'll reread it soon to help me further understand the Middle East. There were 3 hardback dictionaries which I have already begun to peruse. And, One Hundred and One Famous Poems, published in 1958! I was excited to find many favorites like Renascence, by Edna St. Vincent Millay; Grass by Carl Sandburg; Paul Revere's Ride and Hiawatha's Childhood by Longfellow--

and, suddenly, there it was, on page 90--Cuddle Doon by Alexander Anderson (1845-1909. With further research I found that Cuddle Doon was a familiar poem to the children of Scotland in the generations preceding me--my mother's generation. Enough said! I'd love to hear from anyone who may have had this poem recited to them.

Cuddle Doon

by Alexander Anderson

The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi muckle faught and din.
"Oh try an' sleep, ye waukrife rogues,
Your faither's comin' in."
They niver heed a word I speak,
I try tae gie a froon,
But aye I hap' them up an' cry
"Oh, bairnies, cuddle doon!"

Wee Jamie wi' the curly heid,
He aye sleeps next the wa'
Bangs up and cries, "I want a piece!"
The rascal starts them a'.
I rin and fetch them pieces, drinks,
They stop a wee the soun',
Then draw the blankets up an' cry,
"Noo, weanies, cuddle doon."

But ere five minutes gang, wee Rab
Cries oot frae neath the claes,
"Mither, mak' Tam gie ower at aince,
He's kittlin' wi' his taes."
The mischief in that Tam for tricks,
He'd bother half the toon,
But aye I hap them up an' cry,
"Oh, bairnies, cuddle doon!"

At length they hear their faither's fit
An' as he steeks the door,
They turn their faces tae the wa'
An Tam pretends tae snore.
"Hae a' the weans been gude?" he asks,
As he pits aff his shoon.
"The bairnies, John, are in their beds
An' lang since cuddled doon!"

An' just afore we bed oorsel's
We look at oor wee lambs,
Tam has his airm roun' wee Rab's neck
An Rab his airm roun' Tam's.
I lift wee Jamie up the bed
An' as I straik each croon,
I whisper till my heart fills up:
"Oh, bairnies, cuddle doon!"

The bairnies cuddle doon at nicht
Wi' mirth that's dear tae me.
But soon the big warl's cark an' care
Will quaten doon their glee.
Yet come what will to ilka ane,
May He who rules aboon,
Aye whisper, though their pows be bald:
"Oh, bairnies, cuddle doon!"

If you're still reading this post and know some of the Scottish or Gaelic dialect, maybe you can shed light o the quote below which was written into the memoirs of my grandfather, whose grandmother was from Ireland. (since she was Sally McKinney, I tend to think there's also Scottish heritage there)

Our wheat was ground into flour at home by the hand-mill or by horse power, then baked in “pones.” They called it biscuit bread. I remember Mother would say to us children, “Watch children, there might be a beard in that bread; there is a hole in the sarch". Does anyone know what this means? It's either an old dialect or a typo!

Love and Peace to all who read this!
Judy Bussey, July 17, 2016

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Making Fudge, now--and Then

==of Memories...No Recipe Needed
January 28, 2011 at 2:24pm

...poured some sugar into a pan, added about 1/2 as much milk & brought it to a boil. When a drop of the hot syrupy stuff felt just right in cold water, I took it off the heat and added a big spoon of peanut butter, stirred in a little butter at just the right time & turned it out onto a buttered plate. It started to harden before it cooled. I hope it doesn't *turn to sugar*. Sandy and I scraped the pan---my mind flooded with childhood memories.

If we have some milk, we can make some candy, if we have some sugar.

Making fudge was a standard evening treat all year long in our coal camp home. We didn't have a recipe, but knew the proportions of the ingredients--how much sugar we had determined how much milk we needed. Whether we had enough milk left for Daddy's thermos of coffee for the mines was a huge deciding factor.More than once Mother made one of us get up at 4:30 AM to go to Mary Capellis and borrow milk. It was a mortifying experience to be the chosen child. Mother was furious and we knew just to shut up and go get some milk.

There were 8 of us at home most of my life and at times 10, when 2 beloved grandchildren stayed for a few years. How wonderful when we made fudge! As a child got older, he or she could help make the fudge. Mother wasn't exactly good at following the rules of cooking, but we knew it would always taste good. Sometimes we held the pan in a sink of cold water and stirred and stirred and stirred, hoping it would get hard. Sometimes Mother just told us to spread it on crackers. Sometimes it would get hard as a rock. We loved scraping the pan--as I always let my children do too. We always ate every drop, no matter what. Some of my finer memories are with my sisters and brothers up David, *wondering if the fudge will get hard*.

Today, my fudge was hardening just right so we could cut a bite or two while it was still warm and it's delicious. I'm wishing Tommy were here to enjoy it. So many good memories around food. That's just the way we are and I know you are too.

Now, I'll go back downstairs for another bite....hope it hasn't *turned to sugar*

Another winter's day made better ...

Stay safe and Warm,



The Cat Hole

Recently, on Facebook, Descendants of David were motivated by a photograph of the Company Store to reminisce. I remembered playing in the "Cat Hole" where all the store paper waste was trashed. It was a room with a door located on the back delivery porch of the store where they discarded paper trash. The door was never locked and we often went there after 5PM, when the store closed.Papers were waist high and, on a good day, we'd find charge pads with good paper and carbon still attached. Gold!

We played "office","store" and other games that let us use that precious carbon paper.So lucky was the child that got to be the clerk or the secretary because they got to do the writing. We would find would letters and memos with blank backs so perfect for an endless supply of writing paper. We had to buy notebook paper and couldn't use it for play. This memory is circa 1949-1956.

Did you ever play like this?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Just some random, jumbled thoughts.

Christmas makes me sad and I've been sentimental for a few days.My mind goes back to the ice cold winter in David, Kentucky and the only really warm place was around the coal heater in the living room. My mind wanders to coal mining memories...

Just yesterday I was telling a young'un how sister, Karen Bussey O'Rourke and I would unlace Daddy's work boots, during the 1940s-50s. He'd always bring us a bite of his lunch cake as a treat.(One 20 something asked me "what's a lunch cake"?) Coal dust everywhere, on the cake wrapping and all over the floor, on our hands and then of course our grubby little faces. That was the best cake ever!

There were the heartbreaking coal mine songs..Mother sang Dark as a Dungeon by Merle Travis--she'd sing and we'd cry. I remember another sad refrain about a child who dreamed of a coal mine explosion and awakened with this sad plea, "Oh, Daddy don't go to the mines today for dreams have so often come true.Please don't go down into the mine today, for I couldn't live without you." Mother would sing and we cried. yet this is a good memory which speaks to the deadly dangers my father and all underground coal miners faced. Daddy worked 34 years in 30"-36" coal.

Years later when it was my job to "get Daddy off off to work", I remembered to never watch him leave so he'd have good luck that day.Now I'm wondering if other coal miner children had that same superstition.

I honor my father for this sacrifice he made for our family of 8+2 grandchildren along the way. We never had an extravagant Christmas but always got candy--a Sawlog Peppermint stick, horehound candy (for Daddy) and stockings full of apples, oranges, and nuts, and always a real coconut. After we punched a hole in the hard shell and drank the delicious "milk", Daddy would tell us it was monkey pee. We repeated this many years as children. Daddy would laugh so hard to think he'd tricked us.

As for the Miner's Child's Dream, I posted, below, the original lyrics copyrighted 1910, London, England (I assume, although it could have been London, Kentucky) I my research, I found many versions, but since my mother was born in 1919, I'm assuming her version was very close to this one give or take a few "lads" , "whilsts", and "eres". She sang "Daddy" not "Dad". Of course, her singing style for these old ballads was uniquely Kentucky Mountain. A little Old Regular Baptist, too.


(Robert Donnely, Will Geddes)

A miner was leaving his home for his work,
When he heard his little child scream;
He went to his bedside, his little white face,
"Oh, Daddy, I've had such a dream;
I dreamt that I saw the pit all afire,
And men struggled hard for their lives;g her ver
The scene it then changed, and the top of the
Was surrounded by sweethearts and wives."

Don't go down in the mine, Dad,
Dreams very often come true;
Daddy, you know it would break my heart
If anything happened to you;
Just go and tell my dream to'your mates,
And as true as the stars that shine,
Something is going to happen today,
Dear Daddy, don't go down the mine!

The miner, a man with a heart good and kind,
Stood by the side of his son;
He said, "It's my living, I can't stay away,
For duty, my lad, must be done."
The little one look'd up, and sadly he said,
"Oh, please stay today with me, Dad!"
But as the brave miner went forth, to his work,
He heard this appeal from his lad:

Whilst waiting his turn with his mates to descend,
He could not banish his fears,
He return'd home again to his wife and his child,
Those words seem'd to ring through his ears,
And, ere the day ended, the pit was on fire,1958
When a score of brave men lost their lives;
He thank'd God above for the dream his child had,
As once more the little one cries:

From Only a Miner, Green
Copyright Lawrence Wright Co.
Note: Published in London, 1910. This is the original. The more common
version (Doc Watson from Vernon Dahlhart) is a rewrite

My Father, Dawson Ellard Bussey is on the left, lying in a low seam/tunnel a mile or two underground, 1958. RIP Daddy

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmas Presence

      It's very difficult to go through the "Holiday Cheer" when we know so many people who are sad, or lonely ,or who have no gifts. We lived in the coal camp until I was 16. The old stereotype of coal miners working like brutes all week and drinking all weekend has some truth for our family--and especially at Christmas. The Bussey children always stuck together through the Christmas fights, the crying, the remorse, and finally the joy of having a tree and a meal ready, and a few toys for the little ones. When Daddy and Mother settled down, Daddy would play boogie woogie and Blues on our old upright piano. We'd gather round and sing such songs as Chattanooga Choo Choo, Four Leaf Clover, Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy, and many more. He did great Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong songs too! Mother even wrote a Christmas song once and we all had parts to sing. So, we knew joy and had deep love for each other. 
      Most of you may not know that my mother left in 1960, the year I graduated PHS at age 16. Sister Karen and baby brother Johnny stayed with Daddy who had just moved to P-Burg. The story goes that Johnny walked Mother to the bus station in Prestonsburg and said, "I won't cry Mommy, if you don't". It was a sad time and Karen's story haunts me. I don't even remember where I spent Christmas that year, and I still feel guilt that I wasn't with my little sister and brother. But, they made it through a special Christmas with a stronger bond than ever. I hope you enjoy Karen's Story. I'm guessing the year was about 1961-2.

Christmas Presence

        We didn’t know we would be alone.  I don’t think it was planned that way.  Most of the older kids were married or were somewhere else.  Mother lived in Ohio, and she had no money to come home.  Daddy was at the Blue Bell CafĂ©, I think.
        It was Christmas Eve. There was only the two of us.  I was sixteen, and Johnny was twelve.  We each had our own memories of other Christmases.  I remember when Johnny and I shared a bicycle one Christmas (boy’s bike, of course).  We always got books.  We would hammer our Daddy’s socks to the wall behind the coal stove.  On Christmas morning, we would find them stuffed with candy, nuts, and fruit.  One year I actually heard jingle bells on the roof, I swear.
        Mother used to melt paraffin wax and mold candles in empty milk cartons. When she added silver or gold glitter, they became Christmas wonders.  Mother loved small trees with blue lights and “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas”.  Daddy used to bring home boxes of fruit and all kinds of candy. I can still smell oranges and think of Christmas.  Our memories were all we had that night, because we were alone.
        Behind our house, in Kroger’s parking lot, was a Christmas tree lot that had closed for the year.  Trees that no one wanted were lying around on the ground.  Johnny and I looked at each other and thought, “Why not? Who would care if we took one?”  We dragged one tree through the parking lot, across our backyard, up the steps, and through the back door.  We found a tree-stand stored on the back porch, and got the tree propped up in the living room.  We got Mother’s blue lights and strung them around the tree.  We couldn’t find any ornaments, so we made bells using tin foil wrapped around paper cups and sat them in the tree. No popcorn and cranberries for us!  The tree was beautiful when we plugged in the lights, but we were not quite satisfied with the way the room looked.
        Well…the second tree was easier to use because we broke off the branches before we went into the house.  As we placed the pine boughs around the room, we were happy. What could we do next…?
        We had some egg nog and decided to look around for something to add to it.  We began searching for Daddy’s hiding places for empty whiskey bottles.  We found several in the top of his closet, and one under the mattress.  Putting the few drops of whiskey into the egg nog, we were ready to celebrate.
Now, the cigars.
        The highlight of the evening was sitting on the back stoop with our egg nog, smoking a cigar, and looking at the stars.  It was a beautiful night.  The weather was mild for a December night, so we didn’t need jackets.  Neither of us liked the egg nog or the cigar, but as we sat there, we shared a closeness that has never left us.  We felt so alone…but not alone.
        I don’t remember the Christmas presents that year.  That was not important…but I’ll never forget the gift that Johnny and I gave to each other; the gift of another’s presence…just being with someone and being glad you are not by yourself.  I think we were feeling very sorry for ourselves; like no one knew we were there.  Christmas came anyway. 
        The thoughts that are running through my mind more that 30 years later still echo with that loneliness.  Also I feel a deep love for my brother Johnny who shared that Christmas with me.  When we talk about it now, we laugh…but inside there are tears that no one sees but us.

by Karen O’Rourke
December, 1991

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Dark as a Dungeon

First recorded by Merle Travis on Aug 8, 1946, Hollywood, CA, originally released as Capitol 48001.

ORIGINAL MERLE TRAVIS LYRICS, transcribed from Capitol 48001:

It's as dark as a dungeon way down in the mine...

I never will forget one time when I was on a little visit down home in Ebenezer, Kentucky. I was a-talkin' to an old man that had known me ever since the day I was born, and an old friend of the family. He says, "Son, you don't know how lucky you are to have a nice job like you've got and don't have to dig out a livin' from under these old hills and hollers like me and your pappy used to." When I asked him why he never had left and tried some other kind of work, he says, "Nawsir, you just won't do that. If ever you get this old coal dust in your blood, you're just gonna be a plain old coal miner as long as you live." He went on to say, "It's a habit [CHUCKLE] sorta like chewin' tobaccer."

Come and listen you fellows, so young and so fine,
And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines.
It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,
'Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.

It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where danger is double and pleasures are few,
Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines
It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

It's a-many a man I have seen in my day,
Who lived just to labor his whole life away.
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine,
A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.

I hope when I'm gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I'll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin' my bones.


The midnight, the morning, or the middle of day,
Is the same to the miner who labors away.
Where the demons of death often come by surprise,
One fall of the slate and you're buried alive.

Mother used to sing this song to us and the lyrics haunt me still. The coal mines haven't really changed. Brave men and brute labor are still required to mine the precious fuel in the most dangerous of circumstances. In In 2010, coal miners are still making a hard living.My mind goes back to the risks Daddy and other miners faced each day as they lay on their sides for the 1-2 mile "joyride" to the face of the coal under the mountains of Middle Creek.At the face, they crawled on their knees to mine coal. In addition to the constant pain of miner's knee, they endured slate falls, "shooting from solid" dynamite casualties, and the ever present shortage of breathable air. Has the situation changed?

Before the implementation of mine safety laws there were strategies in place to make the mine appear safe.In the early 40s for example, air was diverted to where it was needed most-to the sections inspectors were visiting on a specific day. Before the ventilation laws, air was short on many sections in any given mine. Needless to say, many miners were short of breath on those days. My father gasped for breath all the time and died with 25% breathing capacity. Why did they continue to go in? They had no other way to support their families.

Maybe we'll discover the real cause of the most recent West Virginia mine disaster where 27 men were recently killed in a methane explosion in an AT Massey mine.I sincerely hope it isn't the result of preventable human error. Companies are still (allegedly)lax in their efforts to ensure safety. One primary safety law for coal companies is to provide adequate ventilation so miners can breathe and methane cannot accumulate in deadly, explosive proportions.

I wish peace for the families those who have died in the dark-as-a-dungeon coal mines.

And peace those whose families look the other way as their miner leaves for work, to avoid bringing them bad luck.