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Fifty Miles from Wheeling
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I remember the cold rain of November, beating down on the rocks as we stood in our Sunday best, listening to the preacher read; when they laid my grandfather to rest. Black lung had taken him. As the stewardess checks my pillow, I find myself returning to the place I had left behind and forgotten only to retrace those events in my mind. Another chance to wear my Sunday best, another look into the caves and hollowed out coal shafts that conjure up despair and bitterness inside me….
Barely a man I couldn't sleep a wink. My first day in the shaft, Daddy was proud,
A shiny hat with a lantern and a new pair of coveralls straight from Sears and Roebuck's Catalog. I would walk with real men and be counted among them. Mama kissed me on my cheek and pulled my collar up as Daddy sat at the table and watched Becky Sue pokin faces in her hotcakes. The lights were on before the sun came up. Mama had the early morning Gospel hour singing to us through the radio, straight from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. As we were walking out the door I heard Mama say " Jesus, keep my men safe today and bring them back home."
Lunch buckets and lanterns a hundred or more we made our way to shaft number seven and slowly took turns on the lift. All packed in, I could barely move, as we descended into the earth. It was dark and becoming darker when a stout man reached over and turned my lantern on.
I shoveled backfill until lunchtime and as we sat o the rocks outside of the shaft Daddy took off my gloves and looked at the blisters on my hands. He smiled saying " Keep them gloves on and have your Mama tend to that tonight." I smiled back as I unfolded the wax paper and started to inhaled my sandwich. I heard a commotion and all the men across from me were smokin' cigarettes and laughing. Suddenly, he came out of the middle of them. A tall, strong black man, he was covered in coal dust. At first, I didn't know he was black. " Who got my lunch?" He asked. He looked upset, the other men continued to laugh and just walked away. He sat alone; no one would speak to him.
I reached into my lunch bucket and grabbed another sandwich. I sat down next to him, on the big rock, and offer him the other sandwich. He said" Your just a boy with a hat, what'ch ya doin' down here?" I was taken by his size and deep voice and couldn't answer. He took the sandwich and as he was eating it he put his huge hand on my head saying " See, there is hope for someone in this town. " Creflo Buchanan's my name. What's yours boy?" I squeaked out " Johnny Ray." "Well come on boy it’s time to get some work done." Creflo said. So, we joined the rest of the crew, waiting for a turn on the lift.
Daddy put me with Creflo, and boy was I amazed by what he could do. He would raise those big cedar timbers and pound them into place, keeping the shaft strong. Creflo could see my hands were hurting me. He said, " take them gloves off." My hands were bleeding from the blisters. He disappeared down the shaft and when he came back with his steel hat filled with water, he added Epsom salt. After he stirred it, he put my hands in the water. " Now you just sit here, Johnny Ray, I'll earn your pay for you." I watched in awe as the man worked twice as hard as any other man with ease.
He would sing about his life, about being the son of a sharecropper and wanting better for his family. Thanking 'sweet Jesus' every step of the way. I looked forward to everyday, working with Creflo. My blisters turned to calluses and the muscles in my stomach were as strong as the ones in my arms. He shared his black beans and rice with me. He told me about his wife, Missy Parks. Who was now the beautiful bride of Creflo Buchanan.
The other men rejected Creflo. They started telling Daddy , I was spending to much time with him. So Daddy put me to work somewhere else and would not let me eat lunch with Creflo anymore.
Everytime I saw Creflo, he livened up something inside of me that stirred to the surface. All I could do was smile. In church with Missy on Sunday, sitting on the lonely rock in front of number seven, he'd slip me notes that uplifted me and brought me to singing in the shaft as if he was standing right next to me. Never once did he give me a look of disappointment for my lack of communication.
I was deep in the shaft one day when all of a sudden I heard a rumble. The whole place was shaking. Like a freight train, I saw Creflo run through the mine shaft. He started pushing men towards the lift. The Alarm began to sound as I watched two of the cedar timbers fall and dirt began to fill the hole. Creflo and most of the other men were on the wrong side.
Feverishly, I dug but all my efforts did not seem to help any. Finally a small hole broke through and I began pulling the men out of it one at a time. When Creflo didn't come out, I squeezed through the hole to find him holding up a huge cedar timber. He looked at me with all earnestly and in a deep gravely voice said "Johnny Ray! Get out of here there ain't enough space for both of us!" "Creflo," I said "how could you save those men and not yourself? They hate you." He looked at me intently "Johnny Ray, haven't you learned nothin boy? It's not about them, it's about me, and you best mind me and get out of this shaft!!"
I grabbed a fallen timber and I dragged it over to Creflo. With everything I had in me I lifted that timber and leaned it up against the timber Creflo was holding up. We squeezed through that hole and as we made our way up on the lift, we could here the timbers given way as the hole beneath us started closing in, filling the place with dirt.
Creflo smacked me hard, on my hat with his big hand. I went stumbling to the ground. " Don't you ever do that again boy!!" He shouted. In tears I yelled back "No Way!! I would rather die in the shaft then tell Missy that you had." He reached down and picked me up with tears streaming down his face. He grabbed a hold of me and laid on me a bear hug, that took the wind out of me. "Thank you sweet Jesus, for this boy." He said.
I stopped listening to Daddy and the other men. I ate lunch with Creflo everyday after that. He would read me bible verses over black beans and rice. My Daddy and the other men refused to talk to me now too. When the Army came around and recruited me to fight Hitler, my Daddy wouldn't see me off at the train station. Creflo, Missy and Mama met me there and Mama pulled up my collar and said " Jesus, keep my son safe." Missy and Mama joined in prayer as Creflo said " Thank you sweet Jesus for this man, and watch over him."
Missy slipped me a brown paper bag as I boarded the train. When they disappeared into the distance, I opened the bag. I found a Bible and a small tin of black beans and rice, still warm, straight from Missy's kitchen. The note inside read " Remember, Johnny Ray, it's not about you--it's about Him." Love, your friend Creflo.
As the plane circled round the airport, in Wheeling I felt so sad. Daddy wouldn't mend his fences with me before he died. I will lay him to rest, next to Grandpa. In these hills are buried all the men that have fallen to black lung. But, I can only say to you, there are far worse things to die of.
A beach in Normandy showed me that. It's not how you die, but how you lived that matters. I am strong and alive, keeping home with me, in a brown paper bag with one book, and a warm tin of black beans and rice.
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