Dave Micus, Plum Island Sound

March 11th, 2005

Coal Miner's Nephew
By Dave Micus

I particularly enjoy the quiet of fly fishing. It's pleasant to have the opportunity to be alone with one's thoughts, and I often find that 'problems' which seemed overwhelming a short time before become merely minor obstacles to overcome when viewed through the sportsman's prism.

But this propensity toward peace and quiet wasn't always so. As a boy it was difficult to shut me up, especially when fishing, as I fluctuated between whining and moaning when the fish weren't biting to yelling and shouting when they were. It was only when fishing with my great uncle Albert that I learned the value of tranquility.

Albert had been a coal miner, and after spending a lifetime in a claustrophobic cave with the constant drone of loud machinery, he enjoyed, when we fished or crabbed, the vastness and silence of the ocean.

"Shhhhh!" he'd whisper to me when I was noisy. "The crabs can hear you!"

And as excitable and gabby as I was, I granted his wish for silence and would do my best to sit still. I knew that by doing so I would be rewarded with his wonderful stories.

He and his brothers were wildcat miners during the Great Depression, living with other first-generation Lithuanian immigrants in the tiny mining town of Gilberton, Pennsylvania. It was a hardscrabble life, but you would never know it from Albert's tales.

"We were pretty carefree," he would say, "and we had a lot of fun. Why, we had enough dynamite in the garage to blow up the entire town, but we never gave anything like that a thought. We'd work all day and then go to the tavern at night. Gilberton was dry, so we had to go to a speak, in the back of the firehouse." (I visited Gilberton in the 1970s and the town was still dry. The only place you could get a drink was in the back of the firehouse, an open secret, and we had to give my great uncle's last name and explain our relationship with him before we were allowed to enter.)

"One night, after drinking in the firehouse," Albert told me, "we got to our house and couldn't fit the motor (all of my great uncles called cars 'motors') in the garage. We tried and tried and just couldn't do it. So we figured we had too much to drink and went to bed. The next morning we realized that it wasn't our motor-it was much longer and that's why it didn't fit."

"How did you get the key for that car?" I asked.

"Motors didn't have keys back then. You just pushed a starter button."

"What did you do?"

"We went back to the tavern and found out whose motor it was. We drove to his house, and there was our motor. He didn't realize he had taken the wrong motor, either."

While these were the usual tone of Albert's stories, there were tragedies, and these, too, made an indelible impression in the mind of a young boy.

"We had our own shaft and a coal car. We would put our motor up on blocks, take off the tire, wrap a rope around the hub, and use that to pull up or lower the coal car by stepping on the gas to pull it up and putting it in reverse and lowering it down," Albert explained. "Once I was working the motor, and your uncle Joe and another fellow named Joey who worked with us were down in the shaft. The rope pulling the coal car broke and the coal car ran away. Your uncle Joe managed to jump aside, but the car hit Joey square, and split his head wide open."

"What happened then?" I asked, wide-eyed.

"We brought him to our house, he laid unconscious for three days, then he died."

"Didn't you bring him to the hospital?"

"No, it was too far away. He would have never made it. They couldn't do anything for him anyway."

But Albert's most poignant story isn't one he told. Years of working in the mines had given him miners' disease or black lung, as lung cancer was called, and though he lived to a fairly old age the mines finally caught up to him. The disease progressed, he became more ill, and there came the day when the doctor said it was only a matter of hours. In a cruel coincidence, that day was his wife Jenny's birthday.

Albert lay in bed with Jenny at his side, and she could see him struggling to hold on to that last spark of life. As the night progressed she noticed that he frequently used the small flashlight on his bedside table to check the clock, as if he was waiting for something. And he was. When midnight passed, Albert relaxed and let go of the ghost. He was determined not to allow fate to be so malicious as to have him die on his true love's birthday.

All the great uncles are gone now, and there are no longer the pinochle games or the family gatherings were you could only speak Lithuanian and were fined for grammatical errors in an effort to keep the old language alive. But every now and then while fishing alone I remember Albert and a car that was too big to fit into a garage and I chuckle and feel grateful for having come from such stock. ~ Dave

About Dave:

Dave Micus lives in Ipswich, Massachusetts. He is an avid striped bass fly fisherman, writer and instructor. He writes a fly fishing column for the Port City Planet newspaper of Newburyport, MA (home of Plum Island and Joppa Flats) and teaches a fly fishing course at Boston University.

Previous Dave Micus Columns

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