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Patricia Jones | all galleries >> An Ordinary Day > Granddaddy
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Thursday, May 11, 2007

Underground Labor

In even the briefest conversations about illegal immigration, someone is sure to point out that this alien population performs the jobs that no Americans are willing to do. Such work is assumed to include long hours of low-paying manual labor that doesn’t require special skills or education. However, periodically there is a headline-grabbing incident that reminds us of a different, home-grown pool of labor performing a job no one in their right mind could really want—coal mining. Although changing technologies have certainly improved conditions since my grandfather, Martin Melker, went down in the anthracite mines of eastern Pennsylvania in his teens, it is still a dangerous, intense, and physically arduous way of earning a living. For about 40 years, interrupted only by a stint in France during World War I or by periods when the mines were closed or out on strike, Granddaddy left the house before the rest of the family was up, came home about noon absolutely black from head to foot except for his lips and eyes, showered in the basement, ate lunch, and then began his real life. He dug into the side of the mountain, this time from the surface, to build a four-story house and then a grand modern additional kitchen. He converted the rocky, steeply sloped yard into gardens with orderly rows of iris, dahlias, gladiolus, pink petunias, marigolds, and forget-me-nots as well as peas, beans, and beets. In life and at work, he was independent, tireless, and solitary, always willing to help but never asking for any. Until he died in the aptly named Coaldale Hospital, of Black Lung or silicosis complications, he loved and protected us and provided our vacation entertainment—consisting mostly of watching him work, his large hands and thin, strong body rarely at rest. His daughter and grandchildren, who prize education and have all held jobs requiring a lot of brain work and a minimum of lifting a finger, all happily remember him as a man who did honorable work nobly.

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