Early Days

   Deep in the mountains above Ramsey, Virginia, five miles east of Norton, is a place called the Nettle Patch. The only thing that is noteworthy about the Nettle Patch today is the "eternal flame" that spouts out of the ground, burning off subterranean leakage of natural gas. I guess that was probably the only noteworthy thing about the Nettle Patch at the turn of the century, too--but at that time the community seemed to me the focal point of the universe, and more. It was Shangri-La.
   The leading citizen of the Nettle Patch in those days was a short, broad shouldered fellow with dark brown hair, a full mustache, and twinkling blue eyes. He was Patton Nickels, one of my maternal grandfather's three brothers --absolutely the finest uncle a child could have, possessed of that rare ability to communicate with people of all ages and dispositions, each at his own level.
My earliest and fondest memories are of being regaled by Uncle Patton's stories during long winter evenings around the fire place in his mountain home. Story-telling was always a popular pursuit in my mother's family, and has carried over into the O"Neill clan. But the finest story teller that ever I heard was Uncle Patton Nickels.


Patton and Minnie Nickels



   It was at the Nettle Patch "blab school" that I received my precious little bit of formal education (until years later when I enrolled in a series of correspondence courses). The school was a one-room shack, with an old wood stove for heat and no plumbing whatsoever.
   Of the nine students in our one-room school, six of us were related: John, Vera, Tad, and I were joined by Uncle Patton's son David, and his daughter Tildie.
We didn't learn a hell of a lot, but at least we escaped 'the curse of the Appalachians' -- illiteracy.

    The year was 1907. A tall, scholarly stranger from Big Stone Gap appeared at our house one late-summer day. He wanted to engage my father's team of horses for a two-day excursion to the High Knob country above Norton.
   I was nine years old, thick -necked and husky and already an experienced woodsman and good hand with horses. The gentleman offered to hire me to go along as his driver, and I eagerly accepted. Two other men went along on the trip, though I cannot recall today who they were.
   The stranger had little in the way of camping equipment, but brought along a typewriter on which he pecked away a good deal of the time. I recall that he was very fond of wild chestnuts, either roasted or boiled. He was impressed with the size and quality of the High Knob chestnuts, and took home a sackful.
  The man's name didn't mean anything to me in 1907, though it should have; he was John Fox, Jr., the finest novelist my part of the country has produced. His "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" and "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come" are the finest chronicles ever written about life in the Southern Appalachians.

    When the Clinchfield Coal Company began operations in Dante, Virginia, in 1909, my father got the job of grading the roads. It was a big job, and necessitated the moving of our family from Norton to Dante.
    Pop went on to Dante and established a home, then sent for the rest of the family. John and I walked the 55 miles on our bare feet, driving the family milk cow before us. I remember spending one night at a farmhouse on Sandy Ridge. It wasn't unusual in those days for travelers to be taken in and fed and given a place to sleep, even if they were total strangers. It was a regular thing at our house, and we experienced the same type of hospitality when we were on the road.
    When we reached Dante, Pop bought me my first good pair of shoes. Unfortunately, I had picked up severe stone bruise on one of my feet during the trip. By the time my foot healed, I had outgrown the shoes. And cold weather was just coming on! There was little chance of the shoes going to waste, though. Between the time of my birth in 1898 and our move to Dante in 1909, five more little O'Neills had checked in:  Stallard (who was to be known all his life as "Curly"), Sam, Tom, Kate, and Paul, in that order. Still to come were Jim, Joe, Etta, and Felix (who was rarely called Felix, except by our mother; everyone else knows him as "Pete")
    While I'm naming them off, let me include those who out-ranked me on the family totem pole: Vera, John, and Clara (whom we always called "Tad". That adds up to thirteen, and all of us except Joe lived to reach adulthood and bring children of our own into the world.

    Both John and I had long since completed all the schooling we were going to get by the time we moved to Dante. We were big husky boys (John was 15, I was 11), anxious to earn a man's wages. We had no trouble finding employment in that bustling new coal camp --John carrying water, and I serving as an apprentice cook in a boarding house kitchen.
   The boss of the camp was a strapping Irishman named Bill Hurley, an old friend of our father and a man I best remember for his tremendously broad shoulders and elegant brown mustache.
    Most of the laborers at the Dante camp were foreigners---Italians, Hungarians, and Turks, who came in already indebted to the coal company for the cost of their transportation from Europe. It was obvious that many of those poor people had been recruited for the voyage to this "land of the free" with grand promises of milk and honey, and then cruelly betrayed once they got here. Whatever conditions they lived under in Europe, it couldn't have been much worse than what awaited them in Dante.
   The immigrants lived in wood-and-tarpaper shacks, sleeping twenty and thrity to a room. They endured the most unsanitary conditions imaginable. There was no plumbing, no flooring, and little protection, from the elements. Because of the attempts of many to "skip their transportation" and strike out for parts unknown, the "furriners" were kept in compounds which if they were in existence today, would be called concentration camps.
    Mining safety was unknown at that time, and in the inexperience of the immigrant laborers made things even worse. Many native-born miners quit their jobs and went hungry rather than enter the mine with them. It was like playing Russian roulette. There were already enough hazards in coal mining, they reasoned, without adding human time bombs.

Dave, age 11 at the mouth of
No. 52 Mine at Dante

(Note the pistol in his hand!)

   John and I, being friends and proteges of Bill Hurley, had pretty much the run of the camp. And, being high-spirited boys, we were also mean as hell. I recall one time when we laid a fine wire across the path that ran from the Italian living quarters to the community spring. We waited for a grouchy old Italian named "Fat Tony" to come back from the spring, almost a half-mile away. At last he came, puffing and sweating, carrying a five-gallon pail of water in each hand. We strectched the wire taut--and down went poor Tony, in a tangle of flying buckets and ten gallons of cold water!
    Fat Tony might never have known what caused him to fall, had John and I been able to restrain our giggling. He chased us all the way home, and only the Old Man's intervention saved us from whatever terrible, Old-Country retribution he had in store for us.
     Yes, there are times when a pugnacious, red-faced, two-fisted Irish father is the finest assest a growing boy can have!


   A wild, fun-loving motorman named Clint Trent got drunk in Dante's Little Italy one evening in the fall of 1910. He cursed and leaned on people and made such an all-around ass of himself that his hosts finally decided not to give him any more wine until he straighted up a bit. That, of course, caused an argument, and the argument soon erupted into a fight. Trent pulled a pistol out of his coat and started shooting at every Italian in sight. Before the smoke cleared, he had killed four men and wounded a fifth.
    The immigrant compounds were policed by the Baldwin Phleps Detective Agency. Al Baldwin, the senior officer of the organization, was in Dante when word of the shooting swept through the town. He set out immediately to investigate, riding a bay horse through the camp and up to the gate of the Italian compound.
    "Don't go down there, Mr. Baldwin," somebody said. "The dagoes are all riled up. They've got Trent holed up, and they're going to lynch him. They'll kill anybody that gets in their way!"
    Baldwin rode his horse down into the compound, alone, and when he came out a few minutes later he had Clint Trent on the saddle behind him.
    Trent stood trial and got 20 years for the murders. Years later, after his release from prison, he went on another rampage. He was whooping it up in the town of St. Paul when that town's chief of police went to arrest him. Trent resisted arrest, and the officer shot him dead. (The officer's name was Fleming. He was the father of my friend of later years, Wise County Sheriff Harold Fleming.)


    It wasn't long before my brother John, fourteen years old and independent as hell (this was his outstanding charateristic, one to which you'll notice that I refer from time to time), was doing a man's work and earning a man's pay. He remained a miner throughout his working life, until he became permanently disabled while still a young man as the result of a series of crippling injuries suffered in the mines.
    Late in his rookie year of mining, John was paired with a giant Negro known variously as "Big Jim" or "Nigger Jim" in the No. 52 mine at Dante. The Negro ran a coal-cutting machine, and John was his motor man. The two of them took such pride in their work, went at it so hard, and worked so well as a team, that they cut half again as much coal every day as the next-best team on the hill.
    And then one night it ended. John and his partner were working alone, a mile underground. There was a slate fall. Big Jim was pinned down, his legs and lower torso crushed.
    John came out of the mine for help. It was dead winter, and there was ten inches of fresh snow on the ground. We found some heavy jacks in the snow, and soon a rescue team of seven white men and two white boys was on its way down into No. 52 to free Nigger Jim.
    Jim was still conscious when we got to him. I held his head off the wet, cold floor while the jacks were set.
    The pain must have been almost unbearable, but Jim made no sound. His teeth were clenched like a vise, and I could tell from the look in his eyes that he knew he was done for. He had seen men caught in slate falls before.
    Once Jim asked, "How soon ....?"
    We told him it wouldn't be too long.
    He said, " I hopes it won't be too long."
    A few mintues after the jacks relieved his body of the several tons of pressure, Big jim was dead.
    It was John who carried the news of Jim's death to his widow. I heard him say years afterward that it was the saddest duty he ever performed.
    The widow was left with six young children, and not a penny of insurance or other compensation from mining company. John handed over to her a small colelction he had taken up among the miners. It included every cent of cash that John O'Neill owned, and all he could borrow.

    You hear among young folk singers today sing happy work songs about "mule drivesr" and "mule-skinners." I sometimes wonder if any of them know what driving a mule is really like, and if they'd still sing so merrily if they knew.
    My first job was carrying water on the Interstate Railroad grade at Josephine, about a half-mile from our old home near Norton. That was my introduction to mule driving. It wasn't nearly as glamorous as it sounds in the songs.
    Underground coal cars, at that time, were pulled by mules. The driver who carried the largest whip and who used it the most forcefully was regarded as the best driver. Drivers generally were jealous of each other and the ones I knew considered themselves a cut above the miners who dug for coal.
     The animals worked every day, usually about twelve hours. They had a terrible, repulsive odor about them. Their necks and shoulders seemed always to be raw around their collars, and their hind quarters bore great welts and scars from blows administered with the whip or the "butt stick."
    Mules are noted for their stubborness, but few were as stubborn (and none as cruel) as the men who drove them. If a man wasn't brutal when he started the job, he soon learned to be. There may have been exceptions, but I can't recall any.
    The whip wielded by a mule driver was about ten feet in over-all length. It was made of plaided leather, tapered from a maxium diameter of two-and-a-half to three inches in the middle down to about one inch on the ends. On the "cracker" end of the whip was a piece of rawhide about three-quarters of an inch wide and fourteen inches long; and on the end of that, a piece of twisted seagrass about the thickness of a lead pencil and twelve inches in length.
    Mule drivers prided themselves on their skill and power with their whips. They could tear a man (or a mule) to pieces with one. The one distinguishing characteristic common to all mule drivers was a "red-eyed" appearance. This was not from drinking (though it might have very well been in most cases), but from the effects of having mud slung into their eyes by their mule's hooves.
    I came to learn quite a bit about mules, and how to care for them and work them. In 1911, at the age of thirteen, I became a mule driver.

    My career as a mule driver lasted just a few months. It was hard, cruel, dangerous work. In those days, we used the "drift mouth" method of mining coal. It was also called "deep mining." A network of tunnels followed veins of coal deep into a mountainside, sometimes for several miles.
     It was later that the "strip mining" technique came along, with the bulldozers and giant cranes literally "stripping" the earth bare and destroying forever many large sections of the Appalachians.
    The mule I drove was called Old Red. He was a fine, strong animal. I thought  of Old Red as my partner in the mining business, rather than a beast of burden. And I think he appreciated it. In fact, I'm sure he did. He rarely, if ever balked on me. I frequently led Old Red down into the shallow water of Powell's River beneath the Josephine Bridge and scrubbed him down with strong lye soap-- a practice which the veteran drivers viewed with scorn. But they couldn't deny that Old Red was the best-looking, best-smelling mule in the community.
    The hours I worked were roughly 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. I had to spend an hour each morning feeding, currying, and harnessing my mule, and two hours in the evening unharnessing, rubbing down, and feeding him.
    One morning I was hauling "Bowser" Farmer and three other miners into the mine on my car. As we approached their work area, I began to slue the car over the parting to the left, off the main line. In less time than it takes to tell it, a sudden rock fall buried Old Red and narrowly missed killing us all. The poor mule, my pet and my proud companion, never knew what hit him. It was probably the "closest call" I ever had in a coal mine--and a terrifying experience for a thirteen-year-old.
    Only about eight feet seprerated a mule from his car, and I was sitting out on the bumper when that hundred tons of rock crushed Old Red. One second he was there, responding to my commands--and then suddenly, he was buried and gone forever, in less time than it takes to scream.
    There was nothing to do but cut the traces, drop back a few feet, and cut a new entry. Another mule was hitched to my car. Everything was back to normal. We had to get that coal.
    If I wasn't already a man, I became one that day.

    One of the things a man learns to live with in a coal mine is the presence of the huge rats that roam through the tunnels, living off food scraps and whatever plant or animal life one finds there.
     Coal mine rats are long, lean, mean rescals, black or dark gray in color. I've seen them tear the lid off a metal dinner bucket to get at food. They won't attack a man, of course--at least not as long as he's moving around and able to defend himself. But I wouldn't recommend sleeping next to one; they're big enough and plenty vicious enough to take off an ear lobe or the end of your nose in one bite.
    Old-time miners, like old-time sailors aboard ship, are superstitious about killing rats--and for much the same reason. They believe that when a cave-in is eminent, rats can sense it and will instinctively head for the surface.
    So the old coal miner looks upon Brother Rat as a necessary, if nasty, friend. And it is a fact, so I've been told by numerous people who should know, that many mine disasters have been immediately preceded by a great outpouring of rats.

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