For the first 18 years of my life I lived in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, a tiny coal mining place about 45 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. I played on the American Legion baseball team and my happiest moment was when we were given a blue jacket with a red stripe on the sleeves. I wore it everywhere. My father was an auto mechanic working with his brother in a modest garage built by their mother, a Syrian immigrant. Dad also sold a few cars, old and new, mainly to Polish miners and priests from Transfiguration Church just up the road. When a medicine show came to town and set up its no-frills stage in the big field bordering our yard , I was paid $3 to be the show’s pianist for the week. The outdoor event was packed with folks who were constipated or curious about a bottle of something said to cure tapeworm.
I did my homework on the front porch a few steps from the garage. Occasionally, itinerant house painters sat on a slate “bench” behind the garage and sang country songs until well past midnight, competing with the polka bands at Kosciusko Hall two blocks away.
That was pretty much life in Mt. Pleasant. Oh, each evening, there was the grim procession past our house of coal miners trudging home from a Standard Shaft mine, their lunch pails empty and their faces brutally blackened by coal dust. Some may have also stopped at the country store at the corner to cash their pay from the mine companies and buy necessities.
I’ve been thinking about the mines a lot these days with memories of watching the coke ovens from our back porch. On cold nights we could see the silhouetted figures of homeless men who had found warmth at the ovens. For kids, the surreal scene was scary.
With so much talk by Donald Trump of reviving coal mines, I called an official in my home town (pop. 4,431) for an update on those old mines. Jeff Landy, the borough manager, answered the phone. I asked about the mines. He said they have been gone for a “long time”.
It is quite unlikely – nay, impossible – that they’ll ever reopen. Since 2000, Mount Pleasant’s population had dropped 7.1 pct., according to the latest census. Hardly surprising.
I’m sure the same story can be told in the “hollers” of West Virginia, where every county in the state voted Republican against Hillary Clinton. It’s also where, along with southeastern ohio, Trump was promising better days ahead for the miners. It was one of his more pathetic lies. But those who desperately believed him will now have to find out for themselves.
At the supermarket the other day I met a fellow who happened to see my Pittsburgh Steelers jacket and told me he had once lived in a coal town near Mount Pleasant and worked for the United Mineworkers Union. His father, he said, had been a miner before succumbing to black lung disease. We didn’t exchange names but his father’s tragic past struck home to the blackened faces that guided the death march on our street so many years ago. But at the time, I was too young to understand the horrific sequence. And today the victimized miners and families can expect nothing more.