In the Coal Fields of Kentucky

    In the early summer of 1912, for reasons that are not clear today (and may not have been defined, even at the time), I set out with a friend Milburn Baker for the booming coal fields of Eastern Kentucky. (Actually Milburn was more than a friend; my sister Vera was married to Milburn's father, Jim Baker. So, technically, Milburn was my nephew. But we were friends long before he became my nephew.)
    Imagine, if you can, a pair of red-necked fourteen-year-olds carrying cardboard suitcases thirty-five miles in one day down the dusty footpath that connected Norton with points west, on our way to seek our fortune. We spent the night in a cozy hayloft, arising early the next morning to walk over famous Black Mountain--known as "The Billion Dollar Mountain," because of its many rich seems of coal--and on to the mining community of Benham, where John already had a job in the mine.
    Milburn and I were determined to stay out of the mines if we could. Men and boys were being carried off mining tipples all over the Cumberlands every day, killed or crippled for life--and with little or no compensation, either to themselves or to their families. I have seen men so scared of the mines that each evening when they surfaced after ten or twelve hours of back-breaking labor several miles underground, they'd fall on their knees and thank their Creator for delivering them once again to the topsoil. But they'd be back at dawn the next morning, ready to ride that car down to hell again.

    The sawmill at Benham was run by Carl Lankford--a big, fine-looking fellow who was the half-brother of John's wife, the former Ellen Mitchell of Harlan County, Kentucky.
    Carl gave me a job "rolling bug-dust" or gathering sawdust in a wheelbarrow. In a busy sawmill, it was a job that required a lot of hustle. I stayed right with it, until one day when a big circle saw clipped the hat right off my head. That experience chilled me as nothing ever had before. At the end of the day, I turned the job over to my friend Milburn. Carl Lankford understood. There just had to be some better way to make a living.

     On Carl Lankford's recommendation, I went to work for the International Harvester Company shop in Benham as a helper in the armature room. The master mechanic, a man named Nansteel, assigned me to an old machinist
named Vernie Lingarr. My job was to assist Vernie in winding and taping coils.

    Pretty soon, the job fell into a routine. Everything was busy, fast-paced work--but very repetitious. It was like running on a treadmill for ten hours every day.
    After several weeks of the same routine, an idea came to me. By using Vernie's lathe, we could automate the winding and taping jobs. Vernie went along with the idea, and we soon were turning out three times as much work each day, with only half the effort. 
     One day a Mr. Goodman visited our shop. When he saw how our job had been automated, he was impressed. 
    "Whose idea is this?" he asked. 
     Vernie pointed to me. ''It's  his'n," he said. 
    "Son, " said Mr. Goodman, "I've got a better job for you. " 
     Mr. Goodman went on to tell me that he was the owner of the Goodman Electrical Manufacturing Company in Chicago, and he offered to pay my expenses to Chicago if I would accept a job in his shop there. I'm sure he didn't realize that I was only fourteen. And anyway, Chicago sounded too big and too frightening and too far from home for me in 1912. I thanked Mr. Goodman for the offer, but refused the job.
     I later learned that the Mr. Goodman who offered me that job was the same man who subsequently invented the coal cutting machine and revolutionized the coal mining industry.


    One night after I had been working at International Harvester for several months, the quitting-time whistle failed to blow. 
    Mr. Nansteel told me to call the powerhouse and ask what was wrong. The man on duty there, a fellow named Jess Manes, answered the phone. His voice was shaky.
    "Tell Mr. Nansteel I'm sorry," said Manes. "...I had to kill the nigger. .."
     Calling for help, I raced to the powerhouse. There lay the big Negro who worked with Manes, shot through the temple. There was a hole in his head big enough to put your fist in, and his brains were scattered all over the floor.
    There had been had blood between Manes and the Negro for some time. It was Jess' contention that the Negro had lost his sanity. Everyone knew that the black
man was given to long periods of silent brooding, and while he and Jess had once been quite friendly toward each other, more recently they had worked in the same room for several weeks without speaking.

    Just before quitting time that day, according to Manes, he had walked over to where his coat was hanging to get a chew of tobacco out of the pocket. The Negro, apparently thinking that Jess was going to his coat for a gun, grabbed his own pistol and rushed forward.
    That was his undoing. Jess didn't have a gun in his coat pocket--but he did have one under the bib of his overalls, and he promptly whipped it out and fired--in self-defense, he said.
    I remember the tension-charged atmosphere in that powerhouse as news of the killing spread and a crowd of angry Negroes gathered outside. By the time the camp constable (a fellow with the unlikely name of Joe Sar Creech) showed up, Jess Manes had good reason to fear for his life.
    Manes had placed his weapon, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver, back inside his overalls by the time Creech arrived.
    The constable asked Jess for the gun.
    "No sir, Joe Sar!" said Jess, and he repeated it over and over.
    "No sir, Joe Sar! I'll give it to you when we get to the jailhouse, but not now. No sir, Joe Sar! Not with all them niggers out there. No sir, Joe Sar!"
    Jess won his point. He didn't relinquish the pistol until he was safely in jail. He stuck to his self-defense story, which was probably true, and eventually came clear of the murder charge that was lodged against him.


    While at Benham, I went on a long-rembered coon hunt with John O'Neill and a pair of well-known and well- respected men in the community, Doc Robinet and Jess Gilley.
    We followed a big redbone hound named Old Lonesome and Doc's bluetick, Little Rex, way to hell and gone back into Big Black Mountain. By the time we caught our second coon, it was well past midnight and we were several miles from where we had put into the mountain.
    None of us being natives to that immediate area, all four of us lost our bearing during the long chase. From atop the mountain we could see the glow from two
sets of coke ovens, about twenty miles apart. We knew that one of the ovens was at Benham and the other was at a camp called Rhoda, Virginia (named for the wife of the operator there)--but we couldn't agree on which one was which.

    Jess Gilley and I were sure that the glow that came from off to our left was from Benham, but John and Doc thought otherwise. From the time he was just a boy, John was the hard-headedest, most positive-minded man I ever knew. It did no good to argue with him. So we went the way he and Doc thought was right. We finally stumbled, exhausted, onto a coal tipple at about five o'clock the next morning--the Rhoda tipple !
    There we were , all worn out, eighteen long miles from home, and it was time to go to work. I guess that was probably the only time John was ever late to work in his life.
    We cut back across the mountain, hell-bent to get back to Benham within the hour. John was out in front, mad enough to eat nails, setting a hell of a pace.
    Doc Robinet was several years older than the rest of us and had a sore toe to start with, but he was determined to keep up. About halfway to Benham, though, Doc started to wilt. He stumbled a little bit now and then, his breath coming hard, and then he hooked his bad toe under a root and went sprawling.
    "Oh, Little Jesus..." Doc cried, writhing on the ground, clutching his toe.
    "What's the matter, Doc?" John asked.
    "Oh, Little Jesus, Little Jesus!" said Doc.
    "Do you want to stop and rest a while, Doc?"
    "Oh, Little Jesus!" he replied.
    As if things weren't bad enough already, the dogs ran down a skunk and killed it just before we reached Benham. In the fight, Little Rex got drenched with skunk perfume.
    When we got to Doc's house, he hobbled up to the back door, planning to put his hunting gear away before taking Little Rex down to the creek for a good scrubbing. But the instant he opened the door, the dog squeezed past
him and went charging through the house.

    Having a skunk-hit dog around you out in the woods is bad enough. You can imagine what it's like to have one inside your house!
    John and I were watching as the bluetick shot past Doc and into the house, and we looked at each other in disbelief. There was no outward sound from the house for a few seconds--but then came the damndest racket you ever

    The first thing out of the house was Little Rex. He jumped through the living room window. Then came Doc's three children, screaming like banshees.
    And then came poor Doc, hobbling on that bad toe, with a frying pan right behind him. Doc was followed by his clothes. All of them. And then his fishing rod, his shotgun, and a suitcase.
    Last came Doc's wife, a frail little Irishwoman, broom in hand, red hair standing on end, shouting profanities at Doc and Little Rex.
    Doc moved back into his home as soon as the odor died down, but it was a long time before he went on another coon hunt.


    I remember two other hunting trips that, took place that same year at Benham, because of unusual things that happened.
    One evening John and I were hunting with some fellows who had three dogs, one of which was a big, black hound called Big Boy.
    After daylight, on our way home, the dogs treed a squirrel, and I shot it. The dogs rushed to grab the squirrel as it toppled out of the tree--when, suddenly,
there was no more squirrel. Not even a trace of it. Big Boy, in his excitement, had swallowed it whole!

    Another time, we treed a coon in a hollow oak. The only way to get to i t was to chop down the tree. This we did, but the falling tree killed one of our dogs, a
bluetick called Little Sailor.


    I left Benham in 1914 and went to nearby Harlan, the seat of Harlan County, a town later to become famous as "Bloody Harlan" for the many assassinations and counter-assassinations that occurred there during the years when the mines were being organized.
    Harlan wasn't exactly bloodless, even in 1914. It was a rough, mean, ill-tempered place where human life was held in low regard.
    I went to work in a small restaurant where the main staples were bootleg whiskey and home brew. Since Kentucky was a "dry" state, these were very popular--and dangerous--cammodities.
    The man for whom I worked in Harlan was Carl Lankford, the same fellow who earlier had helped me out in Benham. A few years later, Carl was convicted of killing a man in the heat of a business quarrel, and was sentenced to life imprisonment at Frankfort, Kentucky.
    Old Man Nath Mitchell (Carl's stepfather and the father of John's wife, Ellen) went to the state capitol at Frankfort to petition the governor of Kentucky in
Carl's behalf. Mitchell family tradition has it that Old Man Nath's beautiful blond daughter, Cora, who accompanied him on the trip, hopped into the governor's lap and sat there during the conference--though both she and the old man always scoffed at such a suggestion. Whatever persuasive powers were used on the governor, though, were quite successful; he gave Carl Lankford a

full pardon soon thereafter!

    Getting back to my own story--Harlan wasn't my town. After working a few months in Carl's restaurant, I packed my suitcase and drifted back to Norton.


    After spending an uneventful winter loafing around home, I was restless and ready to go rambling again in the early spring of 1915. In company with Cot Stuart and Elmer Boles, Who were also in their mid-teens, I walked to the mining camp at Roaring Fork, about halfway between Norton and Appalachia, where the road turns off to go to Pardee. I got a job in the Roaring Fork mine, but Cot and Elmer had to walk on to the next camp, which was Pardee, before finding work.
    The mine foreman at Roaring Fork was a fellow named Bob Bolton. Bob took a liking to me, and at his suggestion I took a room in a boarding house near his home.
    I was a frequent guest in the Bolton home, where they had three of the loveliest young girls that ever you saw. All three could play the organ and sing, and we
got along just fine. I was working nights, and the social whirl in the daytime made the drudgery of digging coal seem almost worthwhile.

    But then one morning a message came to me from Pardee:
Cot Stuart had been killed in the mine.

    After Cot's funeral, I had no desire to see Roaring Fork or Pardee again. Or inside anybody's goddam coal mine, for that matter. But there was nothing else to do.

    With another boyhood chum, Roger Farmer, I left home again. Roger and I wound up in Jenkins, Kentucky, and another coal mine. The man we worked for there was Ira Stuart, Cot's brother.
    I remember our last day at Jenkins. A horse was run over and killed by a runaway coal car that morning , just a few yards from where Roger and I were digging. In the afternoon, a slate fall killed a mule and crippled the driver, just down the line from us. We saw the man being carried out, screaming in agony, his leg hopelessly crushed.
    When we got back to our boarding house at dusk, my only change of overalls had been stolen. That did it. Roger, Elmer Boles, and I quit Jenkins and moved on to Coalwood, West Virginia, hoping things would be better there.
    They weren't.


    We had no trouble finding work at Coalwood in the winter of 1915-16. It was a busy, booming camp. Elmer got a job coupling (or braking) cars on the day shift. Roger and I drew the night shift. I helped a fellow named Tom McAfee on a coal-cutting machine.
    We hadn't been at Coalwood very long when someone shook me awake in the boarding house one day to give me another tragic message: Elmer Boles had just been crushed to death in the mine.
    I remember what a bleak, foreign place Coalwood seemed as I stumbled down the boarding house steps and headed for the tipple. There were no leaves on the trees; the sun seemingly had not shined for days; a week-old snow was on the ground, but the snow had been turned dark gray by soot and coal dust. It was the blackest, dreariest, most depressing day I ever hope to see.
    When I reached the tipple, nobody seemed to know or even care about what had happened to Elmer. After what seemed an eternity of inquiring, I was told that his body had been placed in a rail car for shipment back to Norton. I walked the three miles to the railroad yard to make sure that the body was all in one piece. 
    Elmer's body, wrapped in a blanket, was all alone in a dark and silent and otherwise empty boxcar. I knelt over his crumpled remains--perhaps to pray, perhaps merely to make positive identification that it was really my boyhood friend who lay dead.
    "Hello, Dave," Elmer whispered.
    He was still alive!
    There was no hospital  in Coalwood in those days, and the one doctor in the camp was apparently too busy to bother with terminal cases. They had loaded Elmer Boles, still breathing, into the rail car for his last ride home .
    After all these years, I cannot recall the exact words of my short, final conversation with Elmer. But in the darkness of that boxcar he told me he knew he was going to die, and he asked me to tell his mother that he was going to Heaven.
    Then he died, in my arms.
    I accompanied Elmer's body back to Norton, and delivered his dying message to his mother.
    Actually, I didn't know exactly where Elmer had gone, and neither did anybody else. But I never in my life went back to Coalwood, West Virginia.


    Many violent things happen underground in a coal mine--and not all of them are accidents. 
     Lawrence Fletcher, Bill Kelley, and I roomed together in the Black Mountain, Virginia, coal camp--a camp in which there was no plumbing, whatsoever.
    Housing was scarce, as it always was in a busy camp. We took our meals at a boarding house, but had to sleep--or try to-- in the building that was used as a school house. It was an old-fashioned "blab" school, with eighty or ninety children of all ages thrown together under the care of one poor teacher.
    Lawrence, Bill and I worked the night shift-- and you can imagine what it was like, trying to sleep under the same roof with all those screaming kids in the day-

    Lawrence was a tall, husky fellow of about 17. He and I worked together on the cutting crew. Our job was to go in at night with a cutting machine and cut the
coal that other crews would load out the next day. The coal ran in a seam that was from thirty to thirty-six inches high, and cutting it was hard, low, strenuous


    One Saturday evening before we went to work, Lawrence and another young miner named Emmett Petite got into a fight. Lawrence picked up a sprag (a piece of wood used to block the wheel of a coal car) and started beating Emmett about the head and shoulders with it.
    Seeing that young Petite was in danger of being killed or permanently injured, I stepped in and stopped the fight. But Emmett,instead of being thankful, got as
mad at me as he was at Lawrence. He went away cursing us both and vowing that he'd "get even."

    Fletcher and I went on to work, figuring that by morning Emmett would be cooled off and we'd all be friends again.
    Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way. Around midnight, Lawrence and I had just finished cutting a main heading three and a half miles under the
mountain, when we saw a light coming down the main entry. Closer and closer the light came, very slowly. But we had no forewarning of danger, until it was too late. .

    The carbide light was carried by Emmett Petite, and in his other hand he had a big pistol!
    "Boys," Elnmett said, sort of matter-of-factly, "I aim to kill both of you. "
    He pointed the pistol at Lawrence, no more than six feet away, and fired. The noise was deafening.
    "Oh Lord, " groaned Lawrence. "I'm killed! "
    Lawrence crashed to the ground hard, and didn't move or make another sound. I knew he was dead.
    Emmett whirled to face me, struggling to aim the big .45-caliber Colt revolver that he was clutching with both hands.
    There was no time to go for my own pistol, in my coat pocket a few feet away. My only chance was to talk, and talk fast and persuasively. 
    It's easy to "freeze up" when you're looking into the business end of the 7 1/2-inch barrel of a big "Forty-five." But if your life depends on it, you can become very eloquent and long-winded.
    I turned on the charm. I flattered Emmett Petite to beat hell, telling him what a fine young man he was--but knowing in my heart that he was a no-good sonofabitch.
    After a few minutes of listening to my bullshit, Emmett lowered his pistol, turned, and walked away. He didn't say a word, and he didn't look back.
    The main heading in a mine is straight. I could see Emmett's light, moving slowly away, until it disappeared a half-mile up the tunnel.
    Up to that point I hadn't concerned myself with Lawrence--I knew he had to be dead. Finally I crawled over to where he had fallen, fully expecting to find him
with his head blown off .

    But when I struck a light there was my young friend in a sitting position , propped up in six inches of  "bug dust"' (as shavings made by the cutting machine are called), using his forefingers to plug the bullet holes in either side of his left calf.
    After placing a tourniquet (fashioned from a bandana and a hammer handle) above Fletcher's knee, I went to get help.
    That walk to the mouth of the mine was one of the scariest experiences of my life. My intuition told me that Petite had changed his mind about killing me. After all, I was the only witness to what he must have believed was a murder that he had committed .
    Emmett could have been waiting for me at any point along the way. I had to carry a light in order to see where I was going--because there's nothing but absolute, pitch blackness inside a mine. Having a gun of my own was little consolation, since Emmett would undoubtedly set up the ambush at a place where he could get in the first shot, from close range.
    I imagined him crouching at every break-through, waiting in every crevice, standing motionless behind every piling. Each time a big rat would scurry across
the floor, I aged a few years. It was like that every step of the way, for three and a half miles. I knew he had to be there. 

    When I reached the drift-mouth, Emmett's strategy became apparent. He would be waiting to pot me as I  stepped out of the mine!
    I  thought about Lawrence, alone and wounded, deep in the mine. I had to get help. I snuffed out my carbide light and sat for several minutes, gathering strength and courage, praying for the Lord to guide me.
    Bright moonlight flooded the entrance. I waited for a cloud to come along and smother the moonlight, giving me a greater cover of darkness. At last, one came.
It was time to move.

    Bolting out of the mine, I dove head-first over the mountainside, tumbling head-over-heels through loose slate and dirt. Pistol in hand, I scrambled to my feet and ran like a jackrabbit to the boarding house.
    A dozen miners  from the boarding house volunteered to help me bring Lawrence out of the mine. Harnessing a mule to a coal car, we hurried back to the scene of the shooting. Lawrence still sat where I had left him, holding the tourniquet.
    This story does not have a happy ending. Fletcher's wound became infected, and he lost part of his leg. But at least it wasn't his life.
    When Emmett Petite was brought to trial, he testified in court that he had been waiting above the drift mouth to shoot me when I emerged from the mine. But I
came out so fast, it caught him by surprise. I was over the hill and gone before he could get off a shot.

    Petite was found guilty of assault with intent to kill, but his sentence was light. He was free in two years.

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