The Bar Chronicles: #2, Coal Was King

Bar Night 2

‘Coal Was King’

It was coal country and there were bars on every corner. My dad came home from work, black face, sometimes unrecognizeable. I had to get outta there…and I did.” (A friend)

We had our second ‘bar night’ recently, my friend and I, leaving the house for a couple of hours of ‘senior bonding’.  Two beers, this time. The choice, again, Guinness, and the setting, Thirsty’s, a small but vibrant ‘watering hole’ in the heart of Pittsford, NY, across from Starbucks and steps from the Erie Canal.

Thirsty’s doesn’t have a sign over its front door, doesn’t need it. On a week night in December, business was brisk, with patrons of all ages in good spirits, days before the Christmas holiday.

It was unusually mild weather for the start of a western New York winter and the crowded pub was warm.  We arrived just as two barstools were vacated.  With dark beers in hand, we raised our mugs to the other’s good health and the conversation began.

Personal stories that take us well back in time are often fascinating. Telling them with the background din of other ‘spinners’ and patrons reaching between us for their beers, added to our evening experience in this iconic village bar.

My friend’s narrative was no exception and the pictures he painted are still unfolding in my mind’s eye. He took me deep into the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania while offering a glimpse of a young man’s life in a mining family. All of this ‘time travel’ while perched on wooden stools, a beer in one hand and the other stretched out and anchored on the bar to mark our borders from the pressing crowd.

Coal was king in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1930s. The mines flourished while the earth gave up its mother lode of solid black gold, albeit reluctantly. Miners, often immigrants, worked tirelessly in an environment fraught with danger, scraping and shoveling, removing coal layer by layer, loading it into ‘cars’ to be hauled above ground.

In the shortest days of winter, workers entered mines in early morning darkness, leaving their frozen breathes at the ‘drift portal’, like a gentleman checks a coat. At day’s end, the pitch darkness welcomed them out, camouflaged as they were with dust, black coal dust, on them and in them.

“Another round, fellas?” The call snapped us back. Without a word, we threw down the last bit of beer, paid our ‘cash only’ tab and relinquished our prime seats. It was late, two beers down and our eyelids were heavy. I reached back for a last handful of bar snacks as we put another good evening behind us.

The streetlights cast feint shadows over the historic canal, empty now, reduced to a mere ditch in winter when it’s murky waters are drained.  As we walked, I looked at my friend through tired eyes and thought about the different paths we’ve traveled. Life is an adventure and it makes for good stories, good bar stories.

srbottch

Dedicated to my friend, Steve P, and story tellers everywhere.

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srbottch

Retired in 2013 after 5 years as an elementary school teacher and 40 years as a sales representative. My essays/stories are a way to communicate through the telling of personal experiences. One reader said about my essays, "...these are like a cold sip during a marathon run, simple, real life events". Enjoy the run!

16 thoughts on “The Bar Chronicles: #2, Coal Was King”

  1. Another good one chronicled from the “depths of the earth.” Was right there with ya on that small barstool in that warm “pub” full of “hot air.” ……Good job, good night and pleasant dreams

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    1. Thanks for the family vote. Now, if I only had a hundred more sisters… By the way…have you ever been in a bar, pub, saloon, watering hole? Yea, me either until this one time, er, two times. But the greatest stories take place there except you have to shout them out. I wish I could have written more about my friend’s experience. He lost his dad to black lung disease and his future father-in-law was killed in a mine roof collapse. A tough life for those guys who do that work.

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    1. Settings do have an impact. And I hope I can out the reader right there with me, on a stool, soaking up the rich atmosphere and getting lost in the narrative, as I was. Thanks for the wonderful comment.

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  2. My wife grew up in Shenandoah, PA. Coal country. We still see the breakers when we return to this small town. Her grandfather was a coal miner. During the coal boom of the 1920’s. Shenandoah was then the most populated square mile in the US when coal was King. Great story!

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    1. I’m so glad it you could identify with it. Thank you. Despite being in a noisy pub, I was so focused on my friends story. I had a tough time keeping it short because there was so much to tell: his father spent the end of his life in a sanitarium because if TB (black lung) and his wife’s father dies from a roof collapse when she was in the womb. And can you imagine being 1 of 9 children in a coal miner’s family through the depression? I enjoyed this one, myself. (Steve)

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  3. It was interesting reading this piece. Only yesterday I was listening to NPR and they were talking about the plight of the mine workers and what it did to their health and their life. It was infact such a difficult and dangerous profession. Isn’t it funny how meeting old friends always works out to be like a walk in the memory lane. Very nostalgic!

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    1. Behalf, there was so much more to our conversation but the blog would have been too long. My friend’s father died of TB from Black Lung disease from coal dust and his wife’s father was killed in a mine collapse while she was in her mother’s womb. Yes, dangerous work. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Well told. Nicely described setting — enough to taste that Guinness going down smoothly and feel the coal grit between your fingers. Thanks for writing it. – @Tavi59

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  5. So well done! Felt like I was there. Any joint with no need for a sign is the best kind of joint:). I can see why your friend wanted to leave. It was not an easy life for those miners–and a dying job in that area.

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    1. Thanks for the nice words and you really got the mood of it. My friend, a neighbor, talks about it like it was yesterday and was ‘no big deal’. Sure, ‘no big deal’ to lose your father to ‘black lung’, your future father-in-law to a mine roof collapse, heat your house with coal in one room only because there was no central system. ‘No big deal’ but he went on to be a successful machine shop owner. Life is full of stories, isn’t it?

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  6. You paint a vivid picture of Thirsty’s, I could almost taste the Guinness.
    I enjoyed your friend’s story, I’ve heard similar from my old man, who went to work as a coal miner on leaving school at the age of 15. He left the pit before I was born, but I remember as a child being fascinated by the purple scars on his body.

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    1. Well, I wish you had been there to compare notes. My friend’s father died from ‘black lung’, which I guess contributes to TB. A tough life, mining. You would have enjoyed the Guinness.

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