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Wanting coal we could not have smelted the iron needed to make our engines, nor have worked our engines when we had got them. But take away the engines and the great towns vanish like a dream. Manufacturers give place to agriculture and pasture, and not ten men can live where now ten thousand
Thomas Huxley (1875)

Coal introduced a new race of men who work with machinery instead of their hands, who cluster together in cities instead of spreading over the land, men who trade with those of other nations as readily as with those of their own whose market is no longer the city or country but the world itself.
Henry DeBeers Gibbins (1903)

Coal At The Bottom Of Things

Where I grew up the hand of coal was everywhere. Great paddle-wheel boats pushed it up and down the river every day, driven by the heat of coal fire. Columns of barges—eight, ten, twelve to a steamboat—were as common a sight to me as police cars are to the modern Manhattan where I live a half-century later. Those barges glide majestically through my memory, piled high with coal gleaming in the sunshine, glistening in the rain, coal destined for steel mills, coke ovens, machine works, chemical plants, coal yards and coal chutes everywhere. Long before we saw the lead barges push the river aside, we saw plumes of smoke shoot above the willows on the riverbanks. As the big paddle-wheel went crashing by, orange clouds of sulfuric rip surged up in waves from the depths of the deep green river, an angry reminder that this wasn’t just water we were playing with.

On certain days the town sky darkened from coal smoke, the air so dark automobiles used headlights at midday. Some favorite games we played circled around coal: one called simply "walking the railroad ties" gave way naturally to its successor "walking the rails" as a fellow got better at the thing. But whether you hopped along the creosoted wood or teetered on the polished steel stretching in the mind to infinity, the object was to gather up black diamonds spilled from the coal cars.

At night we played ghostly games in and out of long rows of abandoned beehive coke ovens, which looked for all the world like Roman tombs. I can still hear the crunch of a battered shovel digging into the pyramid of coal in our basement and the creak of the cast-iron gate on the furnace door opening to accept another load into the flames. Squinting through medieval view slits in the grate like an armored knight’s helmet paid off with a shocking blast of superheated air. Nothing could be a more awe-inspiring introduction to power for a child.

Mother, puffing her Chesterfield, would often complain about dirty air as the cigarette smoldered, about the impossibility of keeping white clothes white for even a few hours, about her wish to live in the mountains where the air was clean. And Grandmother Mossie would say cryptically, her unfiltered Chesterfield cocked, "Smoke means work." Sometimes I heard men from the beer halls talking to Pappy (my granddad) about arcane matters which summoned up the same sacred utterance, "Smoke means work."

In science class at Ben Franklin Junior High, up in the clean mountains where Mother finally arrived, coal was waiting for me. I remember Mrs. Conn with sections of coal in which fantastic fossil shapes were embedded. In the same school, a music teacher, name now forgotten, taught us to sing the song he told us miners sang as they trudged to the pits each morning:

(Sadly, Slowly)
Zum, Gollie, Gollie, Gollie,
ZUM Gaw-lee, Gaw-lee,
Zum, Gollie, Gollie, Gollie,
ZUM Gaw-lee, Gaw-lee.

Although I doubted that song was genuine because the miners I passed on the street were far from musical men, even as a boy, I loved the feeling of connection it awakened to a life far stranger than any fiction, a life going on deep inside the green hills around me while I sat at my desk in school.

Occasionally an abandoned mine, its hollow tunnels reaching out for miles like dark tentacles beneath the earth, would catch fire along an undug coal seam and burn for years, causing wisps of smoke to issue from unlikely rural settings, reminder of the fiendish world unseen below the vegetable landscape. Now and then a coal tunnel would collapse, entombing men alive down there—from which fate (all too easy to imagine for a boy with a penchant for crawling around in storm drains) the victims would sometimes be rescued on the front page of the Sun-Telegraph, and sometimes not. When a situation like that was pronounced hopeless and miners sat dying underground with no chance of rescue—as sailors died in the hull of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor—I would stare in a different light at the black lumps I usually took for granted.

Another thing I clearly remember is that years after a mine was abandoned and the community far above had lost memory of its subterranean workings, occasionally an entire unsuspecting town would begin to slump into the pit. Frantic effort to shore up old tunnels would stretch out over months, even years, the progress of creeping disaster faithfully recorded in newspapers and street corner gossip as it marched house by house toward its inexorable conclusion. Very interesting, I hear you mutter, but what on earth does all this have to do with the problem of schooling? The answer is everything, but it will take some effort to see why, so deeply buried has been the connection between schooling in all its aspects and the nature of the nation’s work.

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