My Father Worked the Mines

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Writer and frequent Day to Day commentator Marcos McPeek Villatoro reflects on his ambivalence toward coal mines. His father worked in mines for years to provide for his family.


And a final note today about the mining tragedy in Tallmansville, West Virginia. Last night friends and neighbors held a vigil with the families of those who died in the accident there. That death reminds the whole nation of the perils of the industry. DAY TO DAY contributing writer Marcos McPeek Villatoro is the son of a coal miner. He says he's always had mixed feelings about the mines.


My father worked in the coal mines of Kentucky. It was his last job before he retired. After a life moving from one mechanic's shop job to another, this was a real job, said the friend who offered it to him. Sure, it was risky, but you couldn't beat the paycheck, $17,000 a year. Our family had never heard of such money. My parents had plans for it. They wanted their son to get a good education, maybe even go to college. That took money, so Dad went to the mines and I went to private school.

In the summer break I would go home to Turkey Creek, Kentucky, where the mountains were so steep and close together you'd swear the sun never peeked into the valley until noon. `You think this is cramped,' he said. `You should see the shaft.' I never did, but I did see my dad. I watched how though he bathed every day, parts of his body were always stained black, his fingers, for instance. The coal dust hung in his prints and fingernails. Even as a teen-ager, I recognized in Kentucky mining towns then what I would later see in poor countries throughout Central and South America--illiteracy, shack houses, rickets. Even with all those great mining jobs, poverty dwelt deep.

They couldn't let me go down into the mine, but I could hang out at the opening. I watched Dad go down that shaft and cried, for he had told me stories of the three men he had seen killed in accidents, one of them a boy four years older than me. And now Dad was going down there. I wanted to yell out, `Forget this. Let's go home, back to Tennessee. I can go to the local school. Let's just get out of here.' But he didn't. He stayed, even after I graduated from high school. Dad was able to do what so many struggling working-class fathers want to do--get his kid out, out of Dad's life. `Don't crawl into the shaft bucket, son. Sit behind a desk.'

And now I do. But at my desk today, I sit thinking about those miners who died in West Virginia and the awful dull grief that their families must feel. I feel, again, that guilty ambivalence toward these mines that enrich lives and also take them. At my desk, I read a book and turn its pages. I notice that none of my fingers are stained black.

CHADWICK: Marcos McPeek Villatoro is a novelist and regular contributor to DAY TO DAY. His latest book is titled "A Venom Beneath the Skin."


CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick.

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