Hedda peered out her living room window, trying to see into the winding road through the gathering mists as cold evening air flowed down the hills surrounding the small mining village of Port Griffith on the outskirts of Pittston along the Susquehanna. It was January 21, 1959, the day before something was about to happen, something which would mark the end to a way of life for thousands of coal miners working the anthracite fields of eastern Pennsylvania. At the moment Hedda worried about her husband, Luke, who should have been home by now. They lived in a three-room clapboard house, much like the hundreds of others spread along the river. Each day was a small test in endurance and patience. Fresh out of high school and with work hard to come by, Luke had joined the miners a couple of years ago, married his high school sweetheart in the bargain, and settled into an unforgiving way of life. The pay was poor and work was unrelenting, difficult and dangerous, but it was the same for thousands of other Wilkes-Barre families. The River Slope Mine was about a mile off, beyond a slight rise in the distance. Hedda's eyes tried in vain to pierce the unyielding gray curtain while shadows grew, enshrouding the view. Her greatest fear was to see the Black Maria trundling to her front porch. Although she did not know how or when the mining ambulance ever came to have such a dark and foreboding appellation, it certainly lived up to its name, quietly carrying terminally injured and dead miners to their households so that their relatives could see to them. This was an accepted and practical custom in many coal mining towns, as hospitals and medical facilities were far and few between. With little to see and an imagination far too active, she turned from the window, letting her hands fall from the sill, and dragged her feet back to the kitchen to tend to an over-cooked stew simmering on the gas range. The house was quiet with only the occasional loose floorboard squeal for company. She turned on the kitchen light, stirred dinner, and waited.
Sometime later, after the cold stew was tucked into the refrigerator, after she had called neighbors to inquire about their men, she sat alone and in silence while her eyes gradually became moist with worry. She slumped her weary body into a living room sofa chair, covering herself with a tattered quilt and drifting off into a troubled sleep.
There came a knocking on the front door. She awoke with a start, heart pounding in her throat. The knocking came again. She threw aside the quilt, stood up and ran to the door.
"Who is it?" she asked.
"It's me, Hedda. Open the door."
Hedda realized that she must have locked the door from the inside for the night. Her fingers grappled with the deadbolt, throwing the door open. In a blur, her sopping wet, black-faced husband angled through the doorway and they embraced. They stood hugging each other, fixed in an eternal grip of joy, oblivious to the rest of the world.
An eternity later, Hedda managed to catch her breath. "Where the heck were ya? And, why are ya all wet?"
Luke, taken aback by the sudden mood reversal, hesitated a moment before replying. "Hedda. We found somethin'. Somethin' pretty amazing, I'm thinking."
Hedda preferred getting her entire question answered. "And why are ya wet?"
"That's because I had to go into some water to get it."
Years of experience prompted her to replace elation with suspicion. "And what exactly is it?"
Luke reached into his pocket and brought up his closed fist, and as if to dramatize the pending revelation, he opened it upturned, one finger at a time. Hedda gasped. In his outstretched hand Luke held a real wonder. It was a shimmering gold rod, about three inches long, maybe a quarter-inch thick. Luke moved her toward the kitchen where the light was better. The two of them had never seen the likes of it.
"Ya found that in the mine?"
"Yup. Me and Mihal."
"What is that? Part o' some kinda machine?"
"That's what we thought too. Maybe a drill bit broke off and left this behind. But, no way, the gold color makes it clear it's from somethin' else. Hedda, I think it might be gold. And, it looks like there's more o' the stuff still stuck in the coal seam … down there for the takin."
Hedda sat down on a stool and continued to gaze at the wonder.
"Mihal? He were with you?" Before Luke could respond, she asked "What about Herman? What'd he say?"
Herman was the gangway boss. Luke and Herman didn't get along very well.
"Well, Mihal were with me … and Herman, well, he weren't there. Besides, he'd never let us keep the stuff we found."
Hedda's astonished face remained fixed on Luke as he went on.
"It were the end o' the shift, and Herman were at the shaft entrance, unloadin' the buggies. We were up in the gangway, with Mihal mannin' the tap and feedin' the coal down the chute. It was the last load, and with it came a heap o' water."
Hedda reached out to feel Luke's sopping shirt and overalls. "Where's that water comin' from exactly? Say it ain't the river."
"The seam's leadin' us closer and closer 'neathe the Susquehanna. Leaks've been showin' up here and there. It's just seepage. Anyhow, I saw it right away, shinin' nice and bright with my lamp light. It was at the bottom o' the buggy I were loadin' so I just swung myself over and in. Just as I grabbed it, Mihal yelled down to me that there were some shiny metal pieces in the new wall. I told 'im that I got one, and that's when Herman showed up."
Hedda's eyes closed.
"So I slipped the thing in my pocket, climbed out and called up to Mihal to come on down … that Herman were here. He knew well enough to keep his mouth shut."
"So why were ya so late comin' home?"
"Well, Herman had some ideas about cleanin' up and movin' the last few buggies up the track, and so he volunteered the two of us, as we were the last ones in the shaft. Mihal and me, we decided to keep our little secret 'til the mornin' when we could scrape out more o' the stuff. I finished my end of the cleanup and got over here as fast as I could."
Just then, there was a rapid knock on the door. Luke opened it cautiously, revealing a nervous, blackened face sporting a wide grin and an impressive gap where two front teeth had once resided.
"Mihal! What're ya doin' here?"
"Luke. I know I promised not to tell."
Luke's eyebrow instantly shot up while his mouth turned sour.
"Who'd ya tell?"
"Herman. After you left, he cornered me and looked at me with that there stare o' his."
"Oh, crap," sighed Luke, recollecting the many times he'd seen the same frightening look himself, and wished he hadn't.
"Don't be mad at me, Luke. Herman said he'd get us some help in the morning and we could all share."
Likely as not, Herman would take the main share, if not the whole share, which pissed off Luke to no end. In any event, what's done is done, and they exchanged their 'good nights' and settled in, with Luke assigned the chore of reheating his stew.
In the morning Hedda cooked up a hearty breakfast and sent Luke off to work with a kiss. It was always good to see him start the day off with a clean face, shirt and pants. Just the soapy smell of him was enough to cheer her up. It was an ordinary winter morning with the lingering strains of last night's cold mist hugging the ground. As Luke began his trek up the rise, Hedda reached into her apron pocket and looked at the gold rod for about the tenth time that morning, imagining what the rod might be part of. This was certainly something out of the ordinary and something this exciting almost never happened in these parts. She hummed to herself as she attended to her daily chores, making sure that the dishes were clean, the floors swept, and bedspreads tucked. It was a ritual she looked forward to—a reassuring set of motions and objectives, providing a timeless sense of security and continuity. After it was all done, she sat quietly on the lumpy living room sofa near the window, and took up her needle and yarn. Just before noon disaster struck.
The Knox Coal Company breaker whistle filled the valley with instant dread. The continuous shriek had a singular and terrible purpose - to call everyone to the mines because a catastrophe had occurred. Hedda threw on an overcoat and ran out into the street in her slippers, joining other housewives, off-duty miners and retired folks, some carrying small children swaddled in blankets. They walked, they ran, and they all headed up the street, over the rise to the Knox colliery barely visible and more than a mile away. Even from this distance Hedda made out the ominous peaked outline of the breaker, looming over the colliery and the small town of Port Griffith. Fearful looks were exchanged in silence as she joined other streams of people solemnly marching in the same direction, toward the ever louder steam whistle. When she reached the colliery gates Hedda found herself in the midst of hundreds of distraught people swarming over each other at the gate entrance. A miner with a megaphone stood on a box trying to be heard over the deafening thrum. The whistle stopped, and as if on cue, the crowd ceased its chatter. Hedda began to make out some of the announcements. She snaked her way a bit closer through the crush of people and began piecing events together. Part of the mine was flooding. It seems the river broke through and operations were underway to rescue trapped miners, and they were asking for volunteers to help out. Hedda felt her body go limp.
Luke! He had been talking about the water yesterday.
She felt light-headed and alone despite the sea of hundreds milling about. She moved away from the jammed-up gates and found a corner to the side where she watched developments unfold. Volunteers allowed into the colliery grounds organized into groups and moved away toward the mine shafts. Everyone else continued to press at the gates, chattering among themselves, desperately seeking information about their loved ones. That information would eventually come, but not now, as now was the time to begin searching, and for Hedda to begin a long wait. As the seconds turned to minutes, and edged their way to hours, the mob broke up into smaller and quieter groups.
The news came in the form of random announcements over a crackling loudspeaker. The waters from the river had indeed invaded the mines, and although the extent of the flooding was still unknown, it appeared to be widespread, even affecting mining shafts beyond the Knox network. Time crawled. It was apparent that many working in the mines at the time of the incident were found and would soon be joining their families outside the gates. Hedda watched quietly, as miners lucky enough to be far from the flooding were the first to join their loved ones, greeted by cheers from the waiting crowd. Thereafter, smaller groups, either the last to emerge from the flooded shafts or the first rescued, made their way to the gates amid sporadic applause. Her heart leaped when she saw Mihal and Herman emerge from the gates.
However, when Mihal caught Hedda's eyes he shook his head. Herman avoided looking at her altogether. She ran to Mihal as he was being smothered by kisses from his wife, and fought to keep her voice steady. "Mihal. Do you know where Luke is? Did you see him?"
Mihal turned to her, and replied almost apologetically. "Hedda. I don't know. He were deep in the mine when it happened, and I was pushin' one o' the buggies. I were near the entrance when the water started comin' out. I'm sorry Hedda, I just don't know what happened to him."
Seeing Hedda's tears and her mouth straining against outright sobbing, Mihal added, "Luke's a smart one, Hedda. He'll make it. You'll see."
Mihal was shoved away from the gates by his family and friends, leaving Hedda to her lone vigil. Despite the news, she resolved to remain brave and hopeful, standing her ground in the waning afternoon light. Whether it was the chill, or her mounting anxiety, she could do little to prevent herself from shaking under her oversized coat. Her bedroom slippers were cold and wet. The shakes would come in waves, triggered by frustration and disappointment following each emerging group of miners saved from the bitter cold waters of the Susquehanna.
By early evening, an official of the company came to the gate with information. They were trying to fill in the hole from the river side, but that was proving to be fruitless, as the breach was very wide. The names of fifty-two unaccounted miners were announced and the list included Luke. Shouts of outrage and grief-laden howling met the news, peppered with questions aimed at the forlorn and clearly exhausted official. He explained that rescue workers were entering interconnecting passageways leading toward the most flooded shafts, hoping to reach the trapped workers. These operations were going to take some time, and that everyone should go back home until more information became available. He handed out sheets of paper and asked that everyone write down their names and phone numbers, and once again, suggested that all should go home since the late afternoon was turning toward a darker and colder evening. Hedda stood at the gate, numb with anxiety and numb with the cold. She did not want to leave. She was not going to give up on Luke. However, as she watched small groups of people leaving the gates with heads bowed in grief, holding on to each other and silently walking back to their homes, she reluctantly decided to go back to hers, now an empty house, mentally preparing herself with each morbid step for the worst.
No phone call came. No whistle blew. The evening had settled in and Hedda sat in her living room, alone. The needlework lay at her feet untouched, exactly where she had dropped it a lifetime ago. Once in a while, she would get up and try the company emergency number, only to get a busy signal. She could not find the energy to cook anything, nor to tidy up the house—chores which would normally take her mind off daily problems. She only sat and looked through the window as the street lamps and neighbors' windows gradually lit up. The street was empty of traffic, empty of people, as everyone in town hunkered down with their families and awaited the news they knew would eventually come.
It was nearly nine in the evening when Hedda awoke. She was shaking. The coal stove had burned itself out. She had momentarily given in to a fatigue born of unforgiving tension, but now she was alert in the extreme. The shadow of her window frame moved across the far wall of the living room and she turned to see a vehicle approaching over the rise. It stopped at a house several blocks away. Her nearsightedness made it difficult to see clearly, but she did make out two men carrying a bundle and dropping it on a porch.
My God! It's the Black Maria!
They were delivering bodies. The two men got back in and the truck started trundling toward her. They stopped once again, about a block away, and once again, delivered a sad cargo to a waiting porch. This time, people emerged from their house and Hedda heard a shriek followed by disjointed wailing, as they carried the body inside. The Black Maria started up again. Hedda shrank from the window, and turned away.
She sat and listened.
Please, please God, don't let them stop at my porch.
The sinister squeal of worn out brakes heralded its arrival, followed by the sounds of two doors closing. There was a brief, quiet murmur of conversation. The doors sounded again. And the Maria motored off into the distance. Hedda could not bring herself to turn around, to stand up and look down through the window at the bundle left for her to discover. She would not let the thought that Luke had perished enter her mind.
It could not be. It would not be.
With great effort she stood up, turned and peered through the window. She saw nothing on the porch. She turned on the porch lights to make sure, and a figure suddenly emerged from the side of the window. Disheveled hair, sooty streaks across his face, and a grin from ear to ear. It was Luke. Hedda passed out, falling into the welcoming arms of her living room sofa.